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You gotta fight for your right to leak

This time it’s the Liberals giving the Parliamentary Budget Officer a headache


 

I know you’ll be as surprised as I was — i.e., not in the slightest — to discover it was the Liberals who leaked the latest report from Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, that being the first report he provided to MPs before releasing it to the general public.

Page has argued since he took up this job, barely a year ago, that he must not release his reports to MPs exclusively because that would make it easier for them to use his work as partisan fodder. Page knew from the outset that any independent and empowered observer of the fiscal picture will, eventually, be seen as antagonistic to any government, at least to the most thin-skinned members of that government. He really didn’t want to speed that process along by volunteering to be MPs’ partisan shill. Since it’s part of his mandate to answer questions put by opposition MPs, it would be all too easy for one to ask him a question and then stand up in the House one Question Period and say, “Mr. Speaker, the government is doing so-and-so — and I have here in my hand a report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer proving it!!!” And the rest of us wouldn’t be able to judge whether the PBO report actually said such a thing.

Now, it’s possible to argue that that’s too bad, and Page can just lump it. It’s also possible to argue that Page’s institution is valuable and new, and he needs support as he defines his role in a way that will benefit public good instead of Parliament Hill jousting and assorted other baloney. But you really need to be the Michael Ignatieff Liberals to argue both sides, at length, for months on end.

Say hello to Caroline Bennett and John McCallum, who sat side by side in — what a coincidence — the convulsed and incoherent government of Paul Martin, and who today argue (Bennett) that Page must be reined in, while arguing (McCallum) that Page must be backed to the hilt. This incoherence has been obvious for months – here’s Steven Chase writing about it at the Globe three months ago — but the Office of the Leader of the Opposition has been quite unable to settle it.

That’s because the current Liberal leader, like the last three, fosters an environment in which the situation described in the Hill Times article is possible:

Mr. McCallum (Markham-Unionville, Ont.), who was in Taiwan last week, said he wasn’t aware of the situation, but David Hurl from his office said Mr. Ignatieff’s (Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Ont.) office took care of the matter because he was away but his office was “certainly sharing it with people that asked for it, the motion itself didn’t say it was embargoed or anything, right? It just said the MPs would get it and two days later it would go up on the PBO website so if a journalist asked us for it, I think we sent it to them.”

The “situation” of which McCallum was unaware was the situation in which Page released a report to finance committee members on Monday, with plans to release it publicly on Wednesday, only to have the Liberals put out a news release on Monday afternoon featuring quotes from McCallum. That’s the situation McCallum was unaware of: what we might call “the McCallum situation.”

The status of the Parliamentary Budget Office simply isn’t one of the most important questions facing the Harper government or the current Parliament. Page can, if he chooses, soldier on in less-than-ideal administrative conditions. He can quit. I’m told he’s considering it. Oh well. The world won’t come to an end either way. But the question of his status isn’t trivial, either. It is easily framed. The Liberals’ incoherence on the question has been obvious, and embarrassing to them, for months. And yet their leader, a fellow by the name of Michael Ignatieff, has done nothing zip zero nada to fix it. So I’m left thinking, not for the first time, that he wouldn’t know how to run a lemonade stand.


 

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