OTTAWA – The federal government has officially opened its search for a new parliamentary budget officer — and this time they’d like someone “tactful and discreet” who’s good at “achieving consensus.”
The job posting appears to signal that the Harper government, which created the fiscal watchdog five years ago, is looking for a tamer successor to the blunt-spoken and fearlessly independent Kevin Page, whose term ends this month.
“The suitable candidate should possess experience in negotiating and achieving consensus on complex issues among a variety of stakeholders with competing objectives,” says the job description posted by the Library of Parliament.
Page has taken the government to Federal Court in an effort to clarify his mandate after being stonewalled on his requests for basic departmental financial information relating to last year’s budget cuts.
His office has been a frequent thorn in the side of the Conservatives, providing analytical reports on everything from the cost of the Afghan military mission to shipbuilding and fighter jet procurement programs and Ottawa’s fiscal framework.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has taken to launching personal attacks on Page — at one point calling his work “unbelievable, unreliable, incredible” — and the Conservatives have archly repeated that they’re now seeking someone “non-partisan” for the job.
An independent fiscal watchdog for Parliament was a key Conservative accountability promise when they first came to power in 2006. The party had long complained of Liberals fudging the books, particularly by low-balling surplus projections.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Page, a career civil servant, in 2008. But with his five-year term ending this month, the government has been slow to begin the process of finding a permanent replacement.
The new job posting doesn’t close until after Page’s term is up, and late Thursday the government announced that chief librarian Sonia L’Heureux would fill the role on an interim basis, starting March 25.
Despite the high-profile court battle over the PBO’s mandate, Treasury Board President Tony Clement insists any changes to the role in the new job description are the work of bureaucrats — in this case, chief librarian L’Heureux.
“She has, I believe, a responsibility to set out the terms and conditions,” Clement said outside the Commons.
“I see nothing in there that offends the will of Parliament, so as far as I’m concerned it’s a matter that she has the responsibility for.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said consensus seeking is not the PBO’s role.
“Kevin Page has been there to cut through all that B.S. and give real numbers to Canadians,” said Mulcair.
“We’re really concerned that the process they’re setting up is intended to fail and we’re quite concerned that we will no longer have access to that objective information.”
Page himself was typically candid Thursday when asked about the qualities the government is seeking in his successor.
Canada played host two weeks ago to a meeting of independent budget officers sponsored by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
“Achieving consensus” was not cited in two days of talks, Page noted. Nor is it found in the OECD’s draft principles for independent fiscal institutions.
“I think ‘achieving consensus’ is important in a political context with difficult discussions on priorities and policy directions for the country,” Page said in an email.
“Legislative budget offices are not political entities,” he added. “We add and subtract numbers. We do not negotiate on numbers with MPs when they ask for analysis.”
Among the other qualities being sought for the fully bilingual post:
— “He/she will also possess the ability to develop and maintain constructive relationships and facilitate information-sharing and meaningful dialogue among senior decision–makers.”
— “He or she should be decisive, impartial, tactful and discreet.”
The OECD has its own list of principles for independent fiscal institutions, or IFIs.
“Critical to this definition are two concepts,” says the February 2012 draft document.
The first is “that the IFI has a ‘watchdog’ function” and the second is that the office performs fiscal analysis “ex ante,” or before the event, rather than afterwards like an auditor.
As for tact and discretion, the OECD principles say a budget officer “should develop effective communication channels from the outset,” including with journalists.
“Media coverage of their work assists in fostering informed constituencies that may then exercise timely pressure on the government to behave transparently and responsibly in fiscal matters.”
A search committee has being struck to find Page’s replacement, but the government will not say who is on it.
Mulcair pointed out that members of the search committee for the governor of the Bank of Canada are publicly identified and wondered why there’s secrecy in the case of the parliamentary budget office.
“Look, I think the process is the process,” responded Clement.
“It is designed to find a credible, non-partisan parliamentary budget officer, so in the absence of evidence that they’re not doing their job, I respect them to do their jobs.”