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PBO says Liberal reforms would undermine its independence

Head of budget office says proposed legislation would damage its independence, non-partisanship and effectiveness


 
Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette

Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette waits to appear before the Commons infrastructure committee, Tuesday, February 21, 2017 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

OTTAWA – The head of an agency that has spent years shining a light for Canadians on the sometimes-opaque world of government spending is slamming the Trudeau government for its plan to give the office a makeover.

In a new discussion paper, parliamentary budget officer Jean-Denis Frechette argues in detail how the proposed legislation would damage the independence, non-partisanship and effectiveness of an office with a track record of getting under the skin of governments.

The Liberal government has faced criticism since it proposed changes last month that would impose new restrictions on a watchdog designed to serve parliamentarians as a check on the management of the nation’s finances.

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Frechette says the most-concerning changes include new controls over the PBO by the House of Commons and Senate Speakers, limits on the office’s freedom to initiate reports, restrictions on parliamentarians’ ability to request estimates and the risks associated with an added mandate to cost election pledges by political parties.

The legislation would require the PBO to submit its annual work plans to the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons for approval.

The law would also prevent the PBO from making a report public until a day after it provides it to the parliamentary committee that requested the research or to the Speakers.

“The proposed amendments impose significant restrictions on the way the PBO can set its work plan and access information,” Frechette said Wednesday in a statement that accompanied the discussion paper.

“Those restrictions will undermine PBO’s functional independence and its effectiveness in supporting parliamentarians to scrutinize government spending and hold the government to account.”

Former PBO Kevin Page has also been critical of elements in the proposed bill. He has said that some of the new constraints that would likely limit the independence of the office “could be a really big price.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argued this week that his government’s proposals would provide more resources to the PBO and strengthen the autonomy of the watchdog, which would become an independent Officer of Parliament under the legislation and have expanded access to data.

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Following the backlash over the changes, the Liberals have said they are open to amendments. A government source says the feds are considering amendments to ease a new requirement that would force the PBO seek approval from the Speakers and the removal of rules restricting which subjects it may study.

Government House leader Bardish Chagger’s office has insisted there are many benefits from the proposed reform, such as a change that would set the budget officer’s term at seven years and another stating he or she could be removed from the role only through a vote by both chambers.

During the 2015 election, the Liberals pledged to ensure the PBO “is properly funded, and accountable only – and directly – to Parliament, not the government of the day.”


 

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