PBOWatch: Is that a Cabinet Confidence in your budget forecast …

Or do you just not want to give away all your secrets?

Everyone’s favourite fiscal futurist Kevin Page appears to have hit a brick wall in his efforts to persuade the FInance department to hand over the economic and fiscal projections underlying last fall’s Economic and Fiscal Statement (which, ITQ readers may dimly recall, very nearly brought down the government).

As it turned out, the folks at Finance were happy to send along the results of the private economic survey that were used to come up with their projections, but balked at releasing any “additional details” without first getting the green light from PCO, according to Deputy Minister Rob Wright, whose response is dated December 24, 2008:

“We are consulting with the Privy Council Office on whether additional details of the Department’s internal forecast and its underlying assumptions represent a Confidence of Cabinet, or whether we can provide it to you. Under the Parliament of Canada Act which governs your access to data, we are not authorized to release Cabinet Confidences to you.”

But in his reply to Wright sent earlier this week, Page points out that under the previous government, fiscal projections were routinely made public, which would seem to make it highly unlikely that they would be considered cabinet secrets:

These economic and fiscal projections have been published in previous Economic and Fiscal Updates (e.g., see the 2004 and 2005 Economic and Fiscal Updates […]

Further, although elements of your Department’s internal forecast may have been used to develop these detailed projections, you may recall that the Department’s internal forecast is routinely shared with Bank of Canada
officials as well as representatives of the OECD and member countries. Therefore, it is my view that the information that I am requesting should not represent a Cabinet Confidence

[…]As a result, it is my belief that this request should not be overly burdensome as I am only asking, at this point, that your Department maintain past levels of transparency, not to extend them.

Wright also notes that the PBO has “surveyed the same private sector forecasters” as the government, which produced projections that were “slightly more optimistic”; he suggests that “simulating shocks” to the PBO baseline would likely result in “very similar” results.

Page, however, contends that, despite an “apparent convergence of outcomes”, there are still “significant differences” between his office’s projections and those released by the department, particularly when it comes to revenue:

“it is my opinion that public policy would be better served if the reasons for differences between the PBO’s and the Department of Finance’s fiscal forecast were known […] and were well understood by the PBO, parliamentarians and private sector forecasters.”

In other words, he still wants those forecasts, and that’s not all: he’s also requested the forecasts underlying the projections that were presented in last month’s budget, with a suggested due date of March 3, 2009. Over to you, deputy minister.

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