Full disclosure: the last time ITQ covered the Library committee, it was pretty much just to see if it could be done without the liveblogger lapsing into a coma, but this time, it might actually get interesting. Why? Three words: Parliamentary Budget Officer. Who won’t be there – not this time, anyway, although at least one opposition party – the Bloc Quebecois, to be specific – has a motion to launch a full investigation of the relationship between the Library and the PBO. Somehow, though, I suspect that Parliamentary Librarian William Young will be fielding a few questions on the subject during his appearance today.
Welcome to the Library of Parliament committee, ITQ readers! Actually, to be strictly accurate, welcome to the West Block hallway outside the room where Library of Parliament committee will eventually be meeting, which is currently occupied by a shadowy subcommittee of the environmental variety, and will hopefully be vacating the premises soon, what with all of us stuck out here sweltering in our winter coats and all.
There we go! We’re in!
So the rumour – and I stress that this is just a rumour – is that the Librarian is angling to turn this meeting, which is supposed to be focused on the main estimates, into a general roundtable/disciplinary hearing on Kevin Page, rogue parliamentary budget officer.
The chair – Senator Sharon Carstairs – attempted to get that underway, but was thwarted in mid-sentence by the Bloc’s Louis Plamandon, who point-of-orders out that actually, his motion should take precedence.
And – it’s on.
Sigh. Not sure what happened there, but my last few updates got lost in the ether. I know, I really do have to look into that, because it’s very annoying. Imagine if y’all did manage to send me to the G20 like Colleague Wells is lobbying for, and my berry dropped out at a key moment! Anyway, things very nearly got ugly right off the bat between the chair and Plamandon, who was absolutely insistent that his motion should be dealt with before the committee moved to the next item on the agenda – the main estimates, that is, and the presentation of thus by George Young. The clerk, however, advised her that it didn’t have to be the very first order of business; she, in turn, informed Plamandon that he’d have to wait until the end of the meeting, and with some residual grumbling and a pointed outburst of gavel tapping, he seemed to agree. Or at least, he stopped arguing, although he doesn’t look pleased.
Meanwhile, Young seems to be nearly through with his opening statement, which hasn’t yet made even a glancing reference to the PBOlephant in the corner, but is heavy on the digitization projects currently underway.
Apparently, I spoke – or, rather, hit “update”, too soon — Young is now wrapping up his presentation with three key issues that he wants to bring to the attention of parliamentarians; the first two of which seem innocuous — realigning research services, “rebooting” the information technology — but he’s now finally made it to the last, and most contentious: the implementation of the Parliamentary Budget Office. Otherwise known as “Why This Meeting Is Suddenly Standing Room Only”.
He recommends a committee of former parliamentarians be struck to advise the House on whether to amend the current Act to make the PBO an independent office of Parliament, but in the interim, he’s going to maintain the status quo, even if it means squashing Kevin Page and his merry band of macroeconomic analysts like so many bugs under his omnipotent Speaker-endorsed thumb. Okay, that’s a slight paraphrase, but I think I got the gist.
First question – Mauril Belanger, who wants to know how long he has; apparently, in the Senate, you get to ask questions for an indefinite length of time – no seven minute limit for sober second thinkers! – which pleases him to no end.
After prerambling for a bit, Belanger finally gets to his first question: What *is* the procedure for establishing the Library’s budget – the full amount provided by Parliament, and the internal breakdown between various priorities? (I should note that there appears to be a sizeable contingent of PBO-ites in the audience – and I bet there are still more huddled around the parlvu webcast back at the compound.)
Back to the budget, and the setting thereof; there is an executive committee, Young explains, made up of various VIPs within the Libraryverse, which goes through the list of what they hope to accomplish over the next year. There are letters of agreeement involved, and business cases, and the whole thing sounds very determinedly official and not at all based on the whims of a wanna-be independent economic forecaster who won’t play by the rules; after all that is decided, he goes to the Speakers and makes the Library’s case, and eventually, the Speakers send the request to Treasury Board.
Belanger was also curious about how requests for information are divvied up; a series of pneumatic tubes seem to be employed, which distribute amongst various branches and researchers. Requests to the PBO, however, are handled by his office.
Belanger seems to want to pursue that issue, but the chair intervenes – she’s a very *hands on* meeting-runner, isn’t she? – and suggests that his name can go on the list for a second round; as a result, Plamandon takes the floor, and he wastes no time at all in demanding to know why the PBO’s budget was cut. William tries to explain that it was a result of the estimates process described earlier. “We moved forward with an authorized amount,” he points out, which doesn’t actually answer the question of how that particular amount was determined. Plamandon doesn’t seem particularly satisfied or unsatisfied by the response; it’s pretty much what he expected, I think.
He asks Young point blank if he would prefer the PBO to be taken out of the Library of Parliament, pointing out that the fact that the Library has had to hire outside consultants to “begin a dialogue” with the PBO suggests that things may not be going all that well, as far as harmonious intraparliamentary relations.
No, no, no, Young assures him — he did everything he could to convince officials “since the very conception of the office”, since the Federal Accountability Act was introduced – that the PBO would be a natural complement to the work that the Library was already engaged in performing. He welcomed the function – just not, as it turned out, the parliamentary budget officer himself, I guess.
“You’re speaking in the past tense,” Plamandon points out. “What about now?” And at that thrilling moment, Carstairs interrupts to tell him he’s out of time, although she does give Young the opportunity to answer. He does, and tells a woeful if slightly abridged (and possibly not entirely without context) tale of the many management meetings and other Library-related events to which he was invited, but declined to take part. Eventually, he had no choice but to write to the Speakers.
And now, a completely PBO-irrelevant tangent, courtesy of Conservative MP Peter Braid, who is terribly keen on the idea of a “virtual library”, and would very much like to hear more about that.
Readers, I was wrong when I said there were three reporters here — there are actually four of us! Four that I can recognize, that is – it’s possible that there are even more. Next thing you know, there will be scrums breaking out in the hall.
Young points out that transcripts of debates – Hansard, that is – are a relatively recent development; for the better part of a century, it was up to the press to report what was said in the House of Commons, and shall we all pause for a moment and be thankful that’s no longer the case? Although I do have a hankering to spend an entire day liveblogging a typical day in the House – routine business, debates, adjournment motions; all of it.
Braid, meanwhile, wonders if the budget process for the Library is the same as for other agencies and departments. Is he kidding? No, apparently; he really doesn’t know that this is, as Young gently tells him, unique to the Library; no other institution has to have its funds authorized by the Speakers of the House and Senate. And a good thing too, since that would really eat up a lot of their time.
Over to Jean LeForet, who is also in medium-high dudgeon about cuts to the PBO’s budget, particularly given the increase in demand.
Young takes issue with the contention that the cuts in question worked out to 30%; this wasn’t real money, according to the Librarian, but a notional amount that was never authorized. The PBO was treated exactly the same way as every other “service head”, which is, of course, exactly the problem.
Sharon Carstairs wonders exactly how much the Library budget increased, compared to that of the PBO, and I can’t tell if that was a planted question or not; the upshot is that the PBO got an increase of 0.8% or $10,000 – the same as all other divisions, and does that sound really, really, really small to anyone else?
And now, a somewhat pointless exchange of easily available raw data between Young and a Conservative MP who wrote his own name on his nameplate, thus rendering it absolutely illegible, which eventually results in Young offering to send the numbers along in written format.
Next up, the NDP’s Carole Hughes, who goes right back to the PBO, and notes that the independence of the office is absolutely crucial – especially during such tumultuous economic times. She wonders if he – Young, that is – has disagreed with any of the reports prepared by Page’s office thus far, and he notes that he hasn’t even seen any of those reports before release; he hasn’t interfered, although I don’t believe he has said that he agrees with the conclusions.
Anyway, Young assures Young that the PBO is as free from oversight or interference as any other analyst, and Hughes makes a rookie mistake – no pun intended – by suggesting that he wants to “vet” Page’s work, which he assures her is not the case.
Has anyone in his office spoken with the Prime Minister’s Office, or the Finance Department, over the PBO? No, and no. Hughes seems puzzled – I think she may have been working on the theory that this was another sinister plot by the Harper government to silence an independent watchdog, which – honestly – doesn’t seem to be the case, from what I can see. It really is a turf war between Young and Page, and the answer is to amend the legislation. Oh, you knew I had to give that spiel eventually.
Just two more questions and Young will be free to go, according to the chair – and one of them comes from Plamandon, who asks whether he has, in fact, hired an intermediary to deal with the PBO. Well, sort of, as it turns out – the Library has retained the services of Allan Darling to assist in the establishment of certain protocols to aid in the interactions between the PBO and the office of the Librarian, and on and on and – yes. The answer is yes.
Okay, so that’s all for the Librarian; now, on to the motions!
The first two motions having been of the utmost routine-itude, the committee whips through the pair of them in moments. Plamandon notes that he’s made his argument; he just wants to vote, but Conservative MP With Terrible Handwriting (Not That ITQ Is One To Talk) points out that according to Young, Page’s budget *hasn’t* been cut, rendering the motion moot. Belanger seems to agree, but suggests the issue should go to the steering committee instead.
Plamandon, surprisingly, concurs, which means that this meeting is apparently going to end without a vote on the motion – or, for that matter, a firm date for the much anticipated rebuttal appearance by the Great and Terrible PBO himself.
With consensus having unexpectedly been reached, Plamandon swiftly moves on to his other bone of contention, which seems to involve a conspiracy against Quebec; specifically, young Quebeckers who want to apply to become Hill tour guides.
And we’re adjourned! Resolved: That the subcommittee will deal with the question of what, if anything, is to be done vis a vis a study of the role of the PBO, with the Liberals on the committee holding the balance of power if it comes down to a vote. ITQ will, of course, keep y’all posted on any further developments — we just can’t help ourselves when it comes to parliamentary intrigue.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.