Welcome to what may well be the most wonktastic committee meeting inflicted on the ITQ readership to date: the inaugural appearance of the newly appointed Parliamentary Budget Officer, who will make his public debut, fittingly, before the watchful eye of the Public Accounts committee.
Shawn Murphy gives a quick recap of what we know about the PBO, which actually isn’t all that much except in a vague, big-picturey sense. Basically, he’ll give parliamentarians an objective, impartial view on fiscal policy, focusing on the raw data and not the politics. He then turns the floor over to the chief librarian, which actually isn’t as non-sequiturial as it may sound since the PBO will operate as part of the Library of Parliament.
Young wraps up with a little rah-rah for the man himself, Kevin Page, who, he assures the committee, is a “people person.”
And now… Kevin Page! He reminds me of a younger, slightly less looming Jean Pierre Kingsley, at least in appearance. He begins by lauding his team, which is made up entirely of smart, hardworking people, of course, and notes that this is “an early but important step” in the process of bringing the PBO to life. He wants the committee to be comfortable with him, and he’s keen to get started.
So, what will that involve? He’s glad you asked, although I’m kind of worried that I’m about to get lost in a labyrinth of economic policy, competing forecasts, surpluses, deficits – maybe even the dreaded full accrual accounting. And I totally forgot my ball of twine. Hopefully the minotaur won’t eat me.
One of the PBO’s duties that’s likely to cause him considerable grief in future: He’ll be costing out private members’ bills, ostensibly to provide full and frank information to the House. I’m sure he will, but I can also imagine how every single MP will insist that, when it comes to his bill, the numbers are all wrong. Could’ve used him last month at Environment, actually, what with the confusion over the “real cost” of the NDP climate change bill.
Of course, that’s mostly a side responsibility: his main task will be to provide independent advice and analysis of the often wildly contradictory economic and fiscal forecasts, from both the private and public sector.
And – that’s his statement. Questions? Comments? But of course.
Borys wonders how he plans to “prioritize” his duties, since there are kind of a lot of them, from costing members’ bills to scrutinizing the main estimates to predicting the future. Delegate, delegate, delegate! Remember all those smart people he’s been hiring since taking the job last fall? That’s why.
Borys brings up Page’s richer, more famous American cousin, the Congressional Budget Office. He notes that, in that case, its forecasts have been far more accurate than those provided by the government.
Page, unsurprisingly, is a huge fan of the CBO, and even though his office doesn’t have quite as sweeping a mandate (or, one suspects, one-one thousandth of the resources, since we’re such cheapskates when it comes to investing in Parliament). He seems to think his office can provide similarly accurate (and independent) information.
Wait, so the PBO could, in theory, contradict the forecasting from the Department of Finance? How well is that going to go over with this particular government?
Bloc MP Jean Laforest has apparently had a similar epiphany, vis-à-vis governments that don’t take well to being publicly contradicted and wonders if Page’s budget will be at the mercy of cabinet. Not really, he says – remember, he’s part of the Library.
Little-known parliamentary fact of the day: there are already thirty (30) (!) economists on the staff of the Library of Parliament.
Oh, John Williams, how I’ve missed your curmudgeonly demeanour. He’s first up for the Conservatives, and wants to know how quickly the PBO will be able to give its take on the fall fiscal update and the spring budget. As quickly as possible, apparently. He wants to be anticipatory, not reactionary.
Williams, on the other hand, is what can only be described as skeptical. If the PBO were to disagree with Finance and, for example, predict a return to deficit, why, that would produce headlines! Um, yeah. Wasn’t that the whole point of creating the office in the first place? To give parliamentarians an alternative source of information?
Shawn Murphy Wayne Marston (I’m so sorry for misidentifying you, Wayne!) nails it: the whole question of independence of parliamentary officers, he notes, is “percolating” around the House, what with PCO wanting to vet communications plans. Could that be an issue for the PBO?
George Young assures him that it could not. The Library reports to the Speaker, not the House, and is part of the legislative branch. No one will be vetting his reports or those of the PBO. Or so he thinks.
Also, since the FBO’s salary is set by governor in council, he has an additional level of independence, according to Young.
Murphy Marston seems somewhat mollified – for the moment, anyway.
Mauril Bélanger wants more details on his status: He’s not an agent of Parliament, but an officer of Parliament via the Library and, as such, not the same level of independence. He and Young go back and forth on whether the Library is as independent as, say, the Privacy Commissioner, or the Elections Commissioner.
“Do you intend for this to be your last job?” Bélanger asks, which actually isn’t as rude as it sounds, since if the answer is no, it could put his independence at risk, at least if he had any hankering to go back to the public service
According to Bélanger, the British PBO produces an alternative budget. Ours, alas, does not.
After a bit of back and forth on consistency of reporting – so that parliamentarians can compare apples to apples – David Sweet takes over questioning Page. He asks if there will be any limitation on how often the office can produce a report, as is the case for the AG, who can only put out four reports a year. Not as far as he knows, Page says.
Just when I thought I’d made it out unscathed, a question on full accrual accounting, courtesy of David Sweet.
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According to Page, the office should be ‘up and running’ this fall – just in time for Jim Flaherty’s next fiscal update! What a fun, sexy time they’ll have.
And that’s it. Only an hour, but that was enough for Kevin Page to win my heart. He’s just so happy to be here, which is pretty much what he tells the committee in his closing statement. And he’s looking forward to working with them in future. He really is adorably enthusiastic. Hopefully the next time he comes before committee, he won’t be a crushed and bitter man.