Touché

by Aaron Wherry

On Friday, the Finance Minister referred to the Parliamentary Budget Officer as “unbelievable, unreliable, incredible.” On Sunday, Kevin Page responded.

For his part, Page stands by his findings that the federal government’s current system can sustain additional benefits for seniors. Waving away Flaherty’s disapproval, he suggested the minister was under a lot of stress… 

Subtly laying into the Conservatives, Page urged Flaherty to release a similar report to provide parliamentarians with more insight as to why OAS benefits are at risk. “This government in 2006 and (2007) was cutting taxes, increasing spending,” he said, referring to Harper’s first couple of years in office. ”All of a sudden we have a major fiscal crisis potentially headed (our way) because of an increase of recipients in old age security. I think that’s a bit disingenuous.”

Similarly, Scott Clark and Peter DeVries challenge Mr. Flaherty to release a fiscal sustainability report, as the Harper government promised it would five years ago.

See previously: What changed?




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Touché

  1. Henry II ~ Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

    I am curious to know when it was decided that it was acceptable for bureaucrats to go on tv and contradict government. Page is in battle of adjectives with PM/Finance Minister, he clearly has ideological agenda and should be fired. Whoever suggested Page’s name in first place for this job, I assume they are no longer on PM Harper’s Christmas card list.

    • Possibly around the time of Shelia Fraser, who I understand was a bit of a trailblazer in the area (I recall reading somewhere she’s been quite the anomoly in terms of publicly holding the government accountable, and that Harper would be very very interested in finding someone a lot less prone to offer up honest opinions). 

      •  Well, it turns out my answer is surpassed by commenters below.  I stand by my remarks regarding ms. fraser but bow to people’s greater knowledge of the creation of the office.  How embarrassing!

    • The PBO, as envisaged by Harper before taking government, exists to keep government honest to some degree by providing a secondary non-partisan opinion of the state of government spending.

      The fact that he disagrees with the government on various issues does not make him partisan. In fact I’d argue he’s doing precisely what his office was originally intended to do.

      Personally, as a tax payer, I appreciate the fact that at least someone is challenging the orthodoxy with facts and figures rather than partisan blustering.

      The fact that Harper and company don’t like the fact that they have to deal with him is not surprising, but then I suspect his office was a poison pill for whomever Harper thought would be in power these days. LOL

    •  If I do recall, the point of the PBO was to be outspoken and offer an honest, nonpartisan assessment of the books.  The position was created as a 2006 Conservative campaign promise after years of accusing Paul Martin of misleading Canadians (playing down surpluses at the beginning of the year, only to “suddenly” have goodies to hand out at the end of the year).  The PBO, like the Auditor-General (who helped the CPC indirectly by being so outspoken on AdScam and other issues under the Liberals), are fulfilling their purpose when speaking out in this fashion.

      • I believe the direct influence was the Congressional Budget Office down here. Same idea- a non-partisan opinion on government fiscal policy. 

        Mind you, these days, ‘non-partisan’ is what you make of it. 

        • A CBO would be awesome and I thought that was what Cons were creating when they made PBO.

          “This government in 2006 and (2007) was cutting taxes, increasing spending,” he said, referring to Harper’s first couple of years in office. ”All of a sudden we have a major fiscal crisis potentially headed (our way) because of an increase of recipients in old age security. I think that’s a bit disingenuous.”

          gottabesaid, LoraineLamontagne, Tiama_at, Phil King, GMFD:

          Page is editorializing and that’s not his job. I would be delighted if someone just presented electorate with data and let us decide whether the Cons are correct in their policies. It is not Page’s job to go on tv and tell us who is being disingenuous and who isn’t.

          • You must absolutely loathe Shelia Fraser. 

          • Well, you could read the actual report:
            http://www.parl.gc.ca/PBO-DPB/documents/Sustainability_OAS.pdf

            And if the Finance Minister releases his numbers that show otherwise, then you can read that too and make up your own mind.

            But Page has a point.  It’s not like people suddenly started aging at a faster rate.  Demographics are fairly predictable.

          • Page’s position is designed on the basis of the Officer of Parliament and it is very much his job to make judgement calls, analyze, and hold the sitting Government to account over their budget-related activities. The reason that his position is like an Officer of Parliament rather than a bureaucrat is for that very reason. It’s the same reason that *all* Officers of Parliament (Auditor General, Information Commissioner, Privacy Commissioner, Chief Electoral Officer, Official Languages Commissioner, Ethics Commissioner, Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, and Commissioner of Lobbying) exist: to be free of the political interference and accountability relationship that exists between the Prime Minister, Ministers, and their departments. 

            You are explicitly and uncategorically incorrect in the assertion that he is not supposed to express dissent publicly. 

          • Perhaps TonyAdams’ confusion arises out of the fact that the Harper Conservatives all refuse to do their actual jobs of governing for the people of Canada, not shilling for corporations, foreign or otherwise.

            What unusual about Page is that although he is honest and speaks up, he has not yet been fired or forced to resign by the lying Conservatives, as so many other good people have been.

          • He’s providing an analysis, that’s his job. An analysis of trends in the national economy (that’s in the law) is not strictly a presentation of data.

          • I would be delighted if someone just presented electorate with data and let us decide whether the Cons are correct in their policies. It is not Page’s job to go on tv and tell us who is being disingenuous and who isn’t.
            Page DID give us just the data, and the Minister of Finance immediately called the data “unbelievable, unreliable (and) incredible.” based on NOTHING.  When the analysis of independent offices charged with holding the government to account is besmirched by the government I ABSOLUTELY expect said officers to stand up for themselves.  The problem for the Tories is that the only thing that they’re as passionate about as holding Liberal governments to account is NOT holding Conservative governments to account.  That the Tories treat Sheila Fraser as a hero and Kevin Page as a heel tells you everything you need to know about what’s happened to them since moving from opposition to government (and how ironic is it that the Tories LOVED the Liberal-appointed AG, while LOATHING the Tory-appointed PBO!).

            To my mind, we don’t really have a problem until we get to the point where the government is happy about the PBO.  The fact that he gets under their skin is a good sign, imho.

          • Government has not decided on any changes yet, or at least not publicly, so what policy is Page analyzing?

            Been two week debate where everyone is getting their knickers in a twist about a policy that hasn’t even been announced yet and no one knows what they are talking about.
            Page is advocating because there is no policy for him to analyze and yet there he is on tv questioning the motives of elected Government.

            I am all for proper, informed criticism of Government but what Page is doing isn’t criticism. Ms Fraser was terrific because she knew what she was talking about, she was informed, before she made accusations.  

            And we should not have bureaucrats going on tv questioning the Government – Page is supposed to write reports, not try to make himself minor celebrity with Lib/NDP base.

          • Government has not decided on any changes yet, or at least not publicly, so what policy is Page analyzing?

            Well, the government may not have publicly stated what they plan to do about OAS specifically, but they’ve pretty clearly stated that they believe that OAS is not sustainable in its current form, and I rather thought that the whole purpose of the PBO was to give Canadians an independent view of the finances of the nation so that we can be sure that the government is being straight with us about the numbers.

            So, it seems to me, if the government says there’s a looming crisis with OAS, and that it’s unsustainable in it’s current form, not only is it appropriate for the PBO to say “No, actually, there’s no crisis and OAS is perfectly fiscally sustainable in it’s current form given the government’s recent changes to health care transfers” if he believes that to be true, and it’s actually quite literally his job to say that.

            The PBO wasn’t established only to analyze government policy. It also has a role in assessing the veracity of financial claims made by the government to justify policy, or potential future policy. When the Liberals used to claim that they were spending appropriately, and then the budget came and there was suddenly a moderate to large surplus the Tories used to be beside themselves. That’s why the Tories demanded that the PBO be created, not to “analyze policy” but to analyze the government’s take on the state of the nation’s finances. If the government’s opinion is that there’s a looming financial crisis in one of our public pension programs, examining the veracity of those claims is exactly the sort of thing the Tories said the PBO was created for.

    • ‘I am curious to know when it was decided that it was acceptable for bureaucrats to go on tv and contradict government.’

      When they created the job is when. When they determined (rightly or wrongly) that our elected politicians couldn’t be trusted to manage the affairs of government without an independent observer.

      Don’t worry, I’m sure Page will eventually be replaced by a rubber stamp, or his position will be eliminated completely. And, the government’s broader clampdown on the mouths of bureaucrats, I think, should more than address your concerns over this particular uppity civil servant.

    • Since government created the position.  From the Parliament of Canada Act:

      79.2 The mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to
      (a) provide independent analysis to the Senate and to the House of Commons about the state of the nation’s finances, the estimates of the government and trends in the national economy;…

  2. Does the PBO mean to say that Flaherty should have looked at the numbers for OAS before cutting the GST? Were the demographic numbers not available to flaherty before he cut the GST?

    • What’s demographics to a party trying to buy the allegiance of voters? LOL

      • Everything.  LOL

        Without demographic data how do you calculate all of those niche tax credits to target at voter groups you wish to woo?

    • I’m not sure Page is even suggesting anything so onerous.  It seems to me that he’s just saying that the government should have looked at the numbers for OAS before publicly musing about a change to OAS that isn’t necessarily required if you look at the numbers.

    • Conservatives don’t like facts. They don’t like accurate statistics. They don’t like science. They don’t like anything that interferes with their lies and delusions.

      • They like to lie!

        • Boy, those conservatives sure sound evil.  Do they like molesting children and torturing kittens too?

          • I believe that supporting paedophilia is the actually the work of the federal Liberals (at least it was under Martin, according to the Tories) whereas torturing kittens (or, at least, EATING them) is the domain of the Ontario Liberals, or more specifically Dalton McGuinty (or so the Ontario Tories once claimed in a press release).

            Of course, one might conceivably not blame McGuinty, per se, for eating kittens, as this is presumably simply a legitimate dietary requirement for an evil reptilian from outer space.

      • “They don’t like accurate statistics. They don’t like science.”

        BBC interview with Phil Jones,  director of the Climatic Research Unit:

        Q)  Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming?

        A) Yes, but only just.

  3. Read Wherry’s previous posts on the OAS/PBO embroglio – Page was singing from the same “unsustainable” songsheet as the Tories as recently as last September.  Then came the  announcement that provincial transfers under the Canada health act wouldn’t increase every year into perpetuity.  That is the sole reason for Page’s about-face on sustainability – read his report.  This means that Page thinks that the spending “void” the Tories have created by starting to ratchet down the health care spending spigot can be filled by continuing to fund other programs in the face of the undeniable demographic time bomb about to go off.  In other words the so-called “spending watchdog” seems to prefer spending to remain at it’s current level, as measured by “fiscal gap”.  Some watchdog.

    For those whose Pavlovian instinct is to proclaim the glories of anybody who speaks against Harper, please explain why Page couldn’t restrain himself from presenting this report until after some actual financial detail about what Harper intends to do with OAS was tabled, or at least until after Harper’s first “majority” budget is tabled in a few weeks.  Me thinks perhaps he’s not as “independent” and “non-partisan” as the office allegedly requires.

    • Perhaps you don’t understand what the point of the job is. It’s to analyze the numbers of the government and say whether they reflect reality.  When the government claims we’re headed for a fiscal crisis, his job is to look at the numbers and provide an independent assessment of them, which he’s done and which says, “Nope. Not true now.”

      Whether we want to keep the spending “void” as you call it is a political decision, but has nothing to do with what the numbers say.  OAS is sustainable because of the CPC decision to tie health transfers to the GDP.  Whether we want to pay down the deficit/debt faster is a separate matter. Whether we want to spend money on airplanes that need to pulled by snowmobile, or prisons for college freshmen, is again, another matter.

      But what Page is saying is that everything we’ve got going right now we can afford. So when the government tries to claim we can’t, they’re lying.

      Now, if the new budget comes out and says, “Look, we’re going to be putting an extra 6 billion a year into paying off the debt” Page will likely come out again and say, “Nope. Can’t realistically do that with these numbers.”

      •  Does he mean everything, or just everything related to OAS?

    • There isn’t a strong singular voice in this discussion that suggests we all believe that Page’s office is 100% correct in his own assertion. It’s just that he’s more than able and expected to provide a secondary analysis of the numbers emanating from Finance. Had Finance come out with a response that even resembled “I’m sorry Mr. PBO, but we disagree with your assessment, and here’s why” instead. Also, the PBO isn’t necessarily intended to be a “spending watchdog” in the way that Finance (Martin prided himself on being Dr. No) or Treasury are. It’s more a matter of assessing the accuracy of the Budget and other information released by the Central Agencies. A way of checking against the very real temptation on the Government’s side to introduce Alice-in-Wonderland budgets.

      I agree with your assertion that it would be perhaps a better time to level some criticism once the budget has dropped, but there is no denying that the speech in Davos was a floated balloon, designed to glean how such a move in the budget would play out. It’s highly likely that we’ll see some movement in that direction either in this budget or the next (depending on how the CPC’s feelers analyzed the public’s reaction). 

      Nevertheless, getting the press, public, and PBO geared up over the small slivers of information released is definitely to be expected as the result of the Harper’s cards-close-to-the-chest style of information flows. It’s something of a game of political three-card monty. Harper’s certainly not the only one, not the first one, and not even the best at it, but it’s something that needs to stop. He’s got a secure majority and now’s the time to pass potentially unpopular reforms – no need to hide.

  4. Looking at this a little more, I think I may be coming to the conclusion that Page is indeed acting in a somewhat partisan manner with this release.  With the way the CPC has attacked him, I don’t know that I exactly blame him for it, but it is disappointing to see him sink to their level.

    Not partisan in what he said, but more in how he said it. Really it comes down to the phrasing. The “All of a sudden” line makes it more of an attack than it needed to be.

    A better way of phrasing would have been, “Before the 2006-2007 tax cuts and spending increases, OAS was sustainable. It was not sustainable after them, however, until the government capped health care transfer increases to the GDP.  But suggesting a major fiscal crisis potentially heading our way because of an increase in the number of recipients is disingenuous”

    This would also be better because it allows people to draw a concrete line between the tax cuts and capping health care transfer increases, which can help us to decide if we think they were worth it.

  5. double post

  6. Reply to CR:

    There’s no way to introduce the topic of “potentially unpopular reforms” that won’t generate criticism.  Had Harper released a fully detailed “white paper on OAS reform”, he’d be criticized for failing to give advance warning it was coming.  The “floating test balloon” approach makes far more political sense, as evidenced by (for example) flushing out the PBO before there are even actual financial estimates associated with OAS reform to parse.  With the PBO report out there now, I expect Harper will now have little difficulty figuring out how to marginalize it.

  7. GFMD said

    “Does (Page) mean everything, or just everything related to OAS?”

    That’s the problem with his report – he’s assessing “sustainability” wholly in the context of OAS and wholly as a function of the health transfer funding announcement.  What if Harper caves to provincial pressure to restore health transfer funding – presumably Page is back to his September/11 position that OAS funding is unsustainable.

    I’m really scratching my head as to what purpose Page is serving here by being willfully blind of the myriad of other financial measures that are imminent, any one of which will turn his “OAS is sustainable” conclusion on its head.

    • Is Page’s role really supposed to be to assess whether the claims made by the government will always and forever be accurate, circumstances be damned?  

      Page is simply saying “there is no crisis right now, and under current government policy, OAS is sustainable for the foreseeable future in my view”.  That’s exactly what he’s supposed to do.  Sure, maybe there are hypothetical policy announcements that the PBO is not aware of that could change the picture.  Maybe Harper’s about to cut another couple of points off the GST.  Maybe we’ve decided that 65 F-35s won’t be enough, and we need to buy 100.  Page’s job isn’t to read the minds of the government and assess every possible hypothetical future that could end up existing, his job is simply to test the veracity of the government’s fiscal claims, such as their notion that OAS is not currently sustainable under today’s policies, which the PBO claims is not in fact the case.If Flaherty or Harper would like to come out and say “What the PBO is not aware of is that we’re going to drop the GST to 3%”, or, “we’re going to buy a couple of aircraft carriers”, or “some more realistic possibility that adds to the government’s costs” then yes, Page will have to adjust his analysis.  But the Tories haven’t done that, have they?  No.  The response from the Finance Minister is just this side of “Kevin Page is a big do-do head”.

      • It’s not that simple – if you read the G & M piece Wherry linked to in his first blog post on this, Page based his entire report – and his conclusion – on a questionable premise – that the current “debt to GDP ratio” is optimum.  Here’s the money quote:

        “The PBO report is based on the concept of a “fiscal gap” – essentially an estimate of the required changes to spending or revenues that would be needed to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio constant. The PBO finds that based on Ottawa’s recent decision to cap provincial health transfers to nominal GDP over the long term, the fiscal gap will be in negative territory – meaning Ottawa could boost spending or reduce revenue without piling on new debt as a percentage of GDP. ”

        So what do we gain from a PBO report into the “veracity” of the government’s fiscal claims that concludes those claims are false, but only if the government decides the “debt to GDP ratio” shouldn’t change and, accordingly, plows more money into things like OAS, having decided to take it out of health transfers?  This whole thing looks less like an independent watchdog testing veracity and more like a career bureaucrat with an ideological axe to grind when the government hints at controlling government expenditures.

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