ITQ will confess right here and now that she has no idea what to expect from today’s meeting, but since the NDP made such a big deal about it at Finance yesterday afternoon, we couldn’t very well skip out on our PBOWatching duties, now could we?
Okay, so a quick note before we start: if I should fail to show up for my usual Thursday afternoon parliamentary duties, seemingly disappeared without a trace, send the search party to East Block, where I will surely be found wandering the halls of the third floor – just follow the string and call me Ariadne.
That said, I do, once again, have to confess my deep love for this particular building, which is by far the most spectacular of the Blocks, architecturally speaking. If you ever do the Parliament Hill tourist circuit, make sure to add this building to your list of must-sees — right after the Library.
That wasn’t even intentional, but what a perfect segue that was to the issue at hand – the Libary of Parliament, that is, and its eponymous committee, which is about to hear from the consultant hired by Parliamentary Librarian William Young to provide advice on how to deal with the Parliamentary Budget Office. Or, more precisely, with the current Parliamentary Budget Officer: the one and only Kevin Page.
Well, that was fast — citing her ingrained schoolteachering ways, the chair – Sharon Carstairs – just gavelled the meeting into existence.
A bit of administrative ado from the chair – a look ahead at the PBO-related hearings still to come, including that panel of former parliamentarians, and presumably eventually, Page himself.
Today, though, it is Alan Darling, formerly senior advisor to the Library, and Joe Wild, the Treasury Board official who was and is, I gather, most intimately involved in the development of the office, including the chain of command.
Darling begins by having the committee staff pass out his cv – not to the media, unfortunately – and then begins his ten minute opening statement.
Among the points he’d most like to create — the legislation created an officer, *not* an office, and yes, that could be important; and, in a direct shot at one of the most pointed PBO complaints, that officer does *not* have the power to hire permanent staff. Like all other management issues, that falls to — drum roll — the Librarian. As for Page, he’s the first such officer to attempt to circumvent the system, and that McCarthy Tetrault legal opinion — well, Darling doesn’t seem to think much of it.
Darling moves on to a longer explanation of his “working hypothesis” while developing the job description, and hey! There’s David Christopherson, here for the NDP. He’s been agitating for hearings on the whole PBO/Library turf war for ages — including at Government Operations — so it’s good to see him here today.
Anyway, Darling thinks there are two areas where this committee could help out: first, resources — ie money. The aforementioned job description does assign responsibility to the PBO to handle requests for reports, so the committee could, perhaps, be of assistance.
Secondly, and undoubtedly more controversially, he suggests that the committee could address the “manner” in which the current PBO conducts his job, in order to better serve parliamentarians. The language is coded, but trust me, this is as ringing a non-endorsement of Page that you can imagine.
Interesting – Darling’s vision of the PBO – the officer, not the office, just to be clear – was as an “interpreter” of financial information.
After Darling winds down, Joe Wild states his piece; interestingly, he zeroes in on the question of access to information by the PBO – including information that should remain confidential, such as financial information that, if released, could damage the economy, or harm federal-provincial relations.
Questions – first up, Carolyn Bennett, who wants to know more about access to information, particularly Page’s comments yesterday on his difficulty in obtaining the numbers he needs to make sure that the money – the stimulus package, that is – is getting out the door. When Wild responds with vague generalities, she presses him for a direct answer on whether Treasury Board is giving him what he wants.
Eventually, Wild tells the committee that he isn’t aware of any outstanding requests. I assume he means from TBS, but it was definitely a carefully worded reply. What is just as interesting is the fact that Bennett appears to be more interested in ensuring that Page *does* get the information he needs – she even gets in a shot at the out-of-date actionplan.gc.ca – than in running interference for the Librarian, which she’s been accused of in the past.
After a largely pointless intervention by Gurbax Malhi, Louis Plamandon takes over – recall that it was his motion that lit the fuse on this study – and wastes too much of his already curtailed allotment of time with his preamble, before asking Darling a good question: Was this how he envisioned the PBO? No. No, it wasn’t, Darling confirms. He saw a “partnership” between Officer and Librarian, since the Librarian has “legal accountability” for his office. If they can’t cooperate, it will fail – “like a bad marriage.”
Plamandon points out that, as far as “dialogue” goes, the two sides aren’t even talking – that’s why Darling was brought in, after all. Is it time for a divorce? Darling looks uncomfortable; he notes that it *is* within the purview of the committee to recommend that the Office be made independent, but he believes that under the current law, the PBO was really just supposed to support and enhance the Library’s existing functions.
Oh, come on, Peter Braid. You did *not* just ask whether the PBO is an Officer of Parliament. You *did not*. Sigh. Who sent him to this meeting without even the most rudimentary briefing? Anyway, Darling confirms that he is not, which will come as news to exactly no one who has paid even a modicum of attention to the current state of affairs.
Moving on, he also wonders whether there is “any ambiguity” in the reporting relationship, as far as the FAA. No, there isn’t – and, as Darling goes on to say, there is no precedent in a Westminister-style system for a fully independent reporting officer.
Mauril Belanger takes over, and notes that even he sensed an “inherent conflict” in the Act, which gives the PBO the power to direct staff, but not ultimate authority to hire.
He wonders how this could be rectified, and points out, in semi-response to one of Darling’s veiled criticisms against Page’s performance thus far, that it is up to both the PBO and the various departments involved to develop a “protocol” for information requests. I think we can mark him down as on Team PBO.
Wild notes that the PBO has posted his request protocols on the website, but it doesn’t look at the role of the Library. There are, he says, ongoing discussions over how to improve the system.
Darling then addresses Belanger’s query about whether the fact that the hiring of the officer is done by the executive could be confusing the issue – he was, after all, hired by the Librarian – and notes that it was only when he arrived that Page decided to set up “an independent office”. A rogue office, you mean! Oh, why won’t anyone call him a rogue officer?
Finally, David Christopherson – who gets a “finally” only because he’s been terriering away at this for so long. He muses at the surreality of arguing over reporting lines while the economy crumbles, and wonders what the downside would be to making the PBO truly independent — other than financial.
Darling calls that “an entirely legitimate alternative” – in fact, he suggests that it would actually have the *upside* of giving Parliament a role in the appointment. It’s not the statute he was asked to work with, but he seems to think it’s a perfectly fine idea.
Peter Braid doesn’t seem to want to pick up on that intriguing twist — I don’t think anyone expected Darling to be so cautiously, hypothetically enthusiastic about liberating the PBO – and instead, goes back to the question of who reports to whom; more precisely, who isn’t speaking to whom right now. Darling tells the committee point blank that Page needs to be “instructed” to resume discussions with the Library. That, or change the legislation.
Darling reiterates his concern over Page’s pledge to release all reports – including those prepared on request of a parliamentarian – when, really, it should be up to that parliamentarian to decide what to do with that report – including whether to release it, or, alternately, do nothing at all.
He also brings up the Afghanistan report, which was actually published while Parliament was not even in existence, due to the election, but runs out of time. Braid wants to hear more about that, but sadly, his time has expired; luckily, Carolyn Bennett is ready and willing to pick up that baton. She, in turn, reiterates *her* concern over exactly the same issue.
She recalls during her days on the Disabilities subcommittee, she had the institutional memory of one Bill Young – now, of course, the Librarian – who would “whisper in her ear” when a department was saying the same thing as it did last time. Isn’t this, itself, an upside, she wonders – an opportunity to make the PBO “more useful” to parliamentarians?
Roy Boughen – who also doesn’t seem to have been briefed, unless this is a Columbo routine, which is a question that ITQ has to ask herself far too often at committees, in her opinion – wants Darling to confirm that the office – and officer – “didn’t exist until recently”. He then goes on to makes a complete hash of the rest of his timeslot. I’m sorry, but really – next time, just give your minutes to a caucus colleague if you’re going to waste them like that. He starts out by noting that there “wasn’t a job description” at the time that Page was hired – yes, there was, and Darling devoted a good chunk of his testimony to his thoughts on the creation thereo – and then suggests the role is mostly “accounting”, which both witnesses immediately, and forcefully, dispute.
Peter Goldring – who is the co-chair, I forgot that – wants to know more about the Westministerness of it all, particularly on the release of reports. He notes that “simply putting it on a website” during “possibly sensitive times” like, say, the writ period – could be “dealt with quickly”. Not sure what he means by that, actually.
Oh, and the food has arrived, which means that committee members keep wandering away from the table to fill (or refill) their plates. Unfortunately, this means they may be missing much of Darling’s minitreatise on the Congressional Budget Office, which is fascinating, if not *strictly* on point.
Greg Rickford – a Conservative and a rookie – wonders whether the PBO has any additional resources, other than what he gets from the Library. Well, until those t-shirt sales get off the grounds, probably not. He also gets Darling to repeat his point about how the legislation is “fairly clear”, noting that “fairly clear’ is what keeps lawyers employed.
The chair – Carstairs, that is – has just a teeny tiny question before moving to Terry Stratton; she wonders whether the prohibition on releasing information should apply to the PBO, since Parliament won’t be in session. You know, with the Afghanistan report, he *did* seek the permission of all parties. I’m just saying. He didn’t just drive a truck up to Centre Block and start tossing out copies.
Stratton wonders if there is any way that this situation can be resolved – specifically, he wonders if the committee should ask the PBO to sit down with the Librarian to address their differences. Darling notes that he attempted to meet with Page – and did, in one case, but further requests on his part were rebuffed by the PBO. This, he notes, is what the Librarian has had to deal with. He then suggests that the committee could, in its wisdom, “call him offside” — a hockey metaphor, I gather — and which makes Stratton roar with laughter. He likes that idea, I think.
Belanger up again for a second round, with more grilling for Wild on his claim that the information has been provided ‘in accordance with the law.’ Wild notes that he can only speak for Treasury Board, but reaffirms his initial contention.
Belanger can’t resist pointing out that, as far as he’s concerned, restrictions on the distribution of reports during the writ should apply – not just to the PBO, but to the RCMP as well, which invokes chuckles all round.
Having exhausted the speakers’ list, the chair adjourns – well, after a motion from Bennett to put “the binder” on the record so that it can be reviewed and consulted by “media in the room”. Wait, is there anyone but me here? Was that a hint? Eek. I’m heading back to Centre Block before I make it onto the official transcript. Til later!