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.