The meaning of Kevin Page

by Aaron Wherry

Philip Cross argues that Kevin Page’s term was bad for the institution of a Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Having worked 36 years at Statistics Canada, an agency that prides itself on its independence, I have followed attentively the debates about the meaning of independence. The problem with Kevin Page and the PBO was that, to burnish their reputation for independence at their fledgling agency, they fell into the trap of reflexively taking the opposite side from the government on every issue. Page even alluded to this in an interview with Maclean’s, arguing that opposing the government’s projections was justified because “The executive is well taken care of. The question is how you close the gap for other parliamentarians.”

This is not demonstrating independence; this is a slavish devotion to an opposing position. Being independent means evaluating every situation on its merits, not the automatic gainsaying of any position the government takes, to paraphrase John Cleese. Page’s mandate was to help improve budget projections, not bolster the research capacity of the opposition.

Paul’s column from this week’s print edition acts as a good (if inadvertent) rebuttal (Paul’s column went to press a day before Cross’ column was published). But I think Cross’ assessment raises some particular questions that might be considered.

Cross is offended by Mr. Page’s comments to this magazine two years ago, specifically Mr. Page’s suggestion that his allegiance was to “other parliamentarians” as opposed to “the executive.” But to my reading, Mr. Page’s assessment isn’t terribly far from what the Conservative promised in 2006. For years, the Conservatives wrote then, the Liberal government had been underestimating the federal budget surplus. “Governments,” the Conservatives declared, “cannot be held to account if Parliament does not know the accurate state of public finances.” What to do about this? “A Conservative government will: Create an independent Parliamentary Budget Authority to provide objective analysis directly to Parliament about the state of the nation’s finances and trends in the national economy.”

So the Parliamentary Budget Officer would report to Parliament. And it was established because Parliament needs an objective  analysis of public finances. Because Government can’t be held to account unless Parliament has accurate information.

Parliament, of course, exists to hold the government to account. And it is useful to remember here that, in the present case, Parliament includes dozens of Conservative MPs who are not part of the executive.

When the office was created, its mandate was written into the Parliament of Canada Act (Section 79.2). That mandate expands on whom the Parliamentary Budget Officer is meant to assist. The Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer fairly summarizes that mandate as follows (emphasis mine).

The mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation’s finances, the government’s estimates and trends in the Canadian economy; and upon request from a committee or parliamentarian, to estimate the financial cost of any proposal for matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction.

So when Cross writes that “Page’s mandate was to help improve budget projections, not bolster the research capacity of the opposition,” he ignores the actual, legislated mandate. But he also, carelessly I think, conflates an allegiance to Parliament and parliamentarians with an allegiance to “the opposition.”

Here, for the sake of comparison, is how the Office of the Auditor General describes its mandate.

The Office of the Auditor General of Canada audits federal government operations and provides Parliament with independent information, advice, and assurance regarding the federal government’s stewardship of public funds. 

So the Auditor General scrutinizes the Government in the service of Parliament. Just recently, for instance, he issued a report that was highly critical of the Harper government’s handling of the F-35 procurement. But no one is suggesting the Auditor General corrupted his office in the process of thus serving Parliament.

The Conservatives have seemed to stress the phrase “non-partisan” when describing Mr. Page’s hypothetical successor. Cross doesn’t accuse Mr. Page of being a partisan, but he does worry that the Parliamentary Budget Officer “risks earning a reputation for partisanship.” Fair enough. But it seems to me that something needs to be made very clear here: there is a difference between being a partisan and wanting the government to be held accountable. If there is evidence that Mr. Page is a partisan—that he has an overriding and defining allegiance to a political party or even merely an overriding and defining opposition to the Conservative party—his detractors might present it. But being critical of the government does not mean someone is a partisan.

The squabbles over his mandate and reporting authority were likely inevitable given the office’s newness and prominence and the awkwardness of placing the office within the Library of Parliament. You could argue that Mr. Page has not been sufficiently demure these last five years, especially in comparison to comparable officers of Parliament. (Although you’re then objecting to style more than substance.) You might disagree, on legal grounds, with his decision to fight the government’s refusal to disclose information about its spending cuts. (Although there are lots of reasons to believe the way the government reports its spending to Parliament is broken.) You might disagree with Mr. Page’s conclusions. (As Paul writes, that’s to be expected.) But if the worst that can be said about Kevin Page is that he too enthusiastically embraced an allegiance to Parliament, he strikes me as a pretty heroic villain.




Browse

The meaning of Kevin Page

  1. ….and the NDP will impose a job killing carbon tax (repeat ad nauseum)

    Apparently accountable government involves endlessly repeating talking points designed to undermine the credibility of anyone/anything that actually tries to hold the government to account

    Politically brilliant, but is it good government?

    • But is a federal opposition party doing good when trying to hand more power to the independent movement of Quebec???

      • They’ve presented a motion before Parliament to be debated and voted upon.

        The Conservatives are standing up day after day in Parliament having their drones read talking points, often ones unrelated to the topic of their allotted time.
        Francien, you can deflect this all you like, but these “talking points” belong in a press conference or speeches at rallies/fundraisers. Wasting precious time in the HoC with this nonsense is dereliction of duty and does not reflect good government.

  2. In my view, the problem is not that Page has been partisan, but has on several occasions offered policy advice when his job is to stick to financial analyses. For example, early in his tenure, he argued that the Harper government tax reductions would result in a structural deficit of about $11B. over time. While this was within his job description, he went on to argue on several occasions that additional revenues (ie tax increases) were required. This is clearly a policy decision, and his comments therefore bolstered the opposition charge.

    More recently, when the government announced changes to funding programs for seniors, and reductions to the rate of growth of health transfers to provinces, he then reversed his earlier position about the structural deficit, and indicated that the government was now underestimated its projected surplus in 2014-15. This should be good news, but he presented it as the government not being truthful for political gain (an argument that can be made of any government). However, a minor difference of less than $1B in projections several years out is hardly worth suggesting that finance minister was playing politics. On an annual budget of $200B, the difference in projections well within the margin of error.

    • Very well said. Good examples given.

  3. How does one define “other Parliamentarians”? Does that mean solely opposition MPs, or does it also mean backbench MPs on the government side? Backbenchers on the government side generally do not have better access to information than the opposition, and were very happy when the PBO was made an officer of the Library of Parliament because that meant they could access his services privately, as opposed to an officer of the House whose every report is tabled for all to read.

    • from the article in the G&M you refer to:”Mr. Page’s first report was stonewalled for months by the Conservatives.
      It estimated the cost of Canada’s role in the Afghanistan war at close
      to $18-billion – more than double the government estimate of just over
      $8-billion.”

      But what the G&M article fails to mention is the fact that the PBO numbers and the Government numbers differed in regards to the Afghan mission because of what each office regarded as regular maintenance as opposed to specific Afghan costs. For instance, when equipment is used for a war mission, part of such equipment cost is fixed whether it is used in combat or not. Page used all of the cost for the equipment as a cost of war whereas the government numbers did not include all of those cost for the war effort.

      Such difference was very clear at the time of reporting but alas, there seems to be a one-sided memory recall……………………

  4. Page delivered a speech to a Liberal party fundraiser. What more evidence does one need of his partisan nature? Frankly, I’ve been surprised that he didn’t throw his hat into the LPC leadership race.

    • You’re misrepresenting facts.

      Here’s the relevant line from a Globe & Mail story: “But after The Globe asked Mr. Page to comment on the optics of his appearance at an event that would be raising money for the Liberal Party, the Parliamentary Budget Officer said he would refuse to appear unless he was assured any profits would go to charity. He said he was told the event was non-partisan and that he would be contacting the organizer.”

      Clearly the Liberals (Vancouver Island University Young Liberals) made a mistake to ask him to speak at an event intended for fundraising.

      But your attempt to smear Kevin Page with that is pretty low.

      http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawa-notebook/kevin-page-event-raises-eyebrows—and-sends-liberals-scrambling/article618209/

      • No he didn’t but was Mr.Page not aware that the event couldn’t have been non-partisan when it is a Liberal association doing the invite???

    • He would have delivered the same speech to any party’s fund raiser. That thought must have occurred even to you.

      • And how would you know that??

        • Telepathy.

          • Pathology

          • Not quite. But it does describe the govt’s attacks on an officer of Parliament.

          • You are a master of deflection.

          • Thanks.

  5. “This is not demonstrating independence; this is a slavish devotion to an opposing position.”

    Some important distinctions there AW. A slavish or overly enthusiastic and perhaps too vocal devotion to Parliament is not at all the same as being overtly biased toward the CPC. This should be vigorously pointed out at every opportunity. That much at least is clearly not acceptable even from this scummy govt. And that’s what this is an attempt at a public shaming so that no one will complain when the replacement files a messaging permission slip with the pmo.

    I disagree with Aaron’s assessment of what Cross is saying though. The logical corollaryof that quote is to suggest that Page is indeed biased and he must therefore not be giving enough weight where he ought or too much weight where he oughten in some other areas, when pursuing the govts math. Which is kinda ironic when they aren’t even giving him the whole picture…i guess he’s to blame for that too?

    If you do a counter factual on this it is difficult to see how an effective PBO is going to be able to do his /her job if he isn’t opposing the govt in the sense that he is looking for evidence to the contrary as much as he would be supporting evidence.
    . Cross and the other critics are clearly suggesting Page didn’t look hard enough for supporting evidence, and too hard for contrary evidence, and they should say so; rather than cowardly hinting at it. In that sense at least the govt is being more honest than some of the so called critics. At least they are trying to stab the guy in the front rather than the back.

  6. Aaron Wherry is not representing or interpreting the write-up by Philip Cross in correct ways.

    Generally speaking, Philip Cross is saying that since Kevin Page, from the get-go, always tried to dis-proof the government rather than finding objectivity, he has thereby overstepped his neutrality.

    Only when objective analysis is provided will the PBO be of help to the Members of Parliament.

    There is no need to draw in a comparison to the AG here. That only makes the argument more muddied. Perhaps muddying the argument as set out by Cross is what Wherry’s intent is. Perhaps without the muddying of Cross’ argument, Wherry would have nothing to object to.

      • I was summing up Cross’ write-up when using the word dis-proof. I may have used the wrong word there. But the general idea Cross is trying to convey within his write-up is the fact that Page, rather than looking at numbers objectively, he was taking on an approach of countering the government’s numbers, which I then interpreted as a dis-proving of numbers.

        I have not claimed, nor do I proclaim to have insight to Mr.Page’s intent. I merely reach out from observations made.

        I will read he suggested webpage at my earliest convenience. :)

        • Fair enough. I think, though, that argument would go to intent (or require a subjective reading of tone or something). And we really can’t know what Page feels in his heart. Or at least I don’t think we can infer that from Kevin Page saying he was on the side of parliamentarians, not the executive. That’s his mandate. His mandate says nothing about assisting the cabinet.

          My larger theory is that concerns about Page are really concerns about his tone, or his willingness to speak about what he’s doing and what his analysis is. But when you start exploring that it becomes very difficult to explain precisely what he has done wrong (except to say that he should talk less because we don’t want our officers of Parliament speaking unless spoken to).

          • I read the webpage you suggested and indeed it can be said that the government, too, has learned lessons from listening to the PBO and his view on things.

            Taking this quote directly from the suggested webpage: “Rather than attacking his office, said Page, the government should
            routinely respond to his reports with its own data that either refutes,
            clarifies or corroborates the PBO’s findings.”

            But it could just as easily be said that it is important for Page also to do the very same thing, namely to keep the government’s findings in mind, since (and I have said this in other postings) the government, any government, must keep all aspects of governing in mind, not just one department or so at a time. The PBO is not bound by the very same restrictions as is the government.

            It seems to me though, that most often the dispute between the government numbers and the PBO numbers is a matter of approach. What to include, what not to include and so forth. Nevertheless, regardless of the ongoing disputes, I do think the PBO to be of value. I hope that the wrinkles will be ironed out within the next appointment as at this point in time experience will be had by all involved.

            As to tone setting: I’ve just finished watching last nights episode of At Issue which started off with a clip in which Page is asked whether the government could have deliberately downplayed the numbers in the F35 debate, to which Page responded with a resolute: “Yes! ”

            That is tone setting extra-ordinair and Mr.Page should have known better.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *