Q&A: Jean Denis-Frechette, the new Parliamentary Budget Officer on his new job

'I will not be—and I repeat, I will not be—complacent'

In addition to talking about the current impasse involving Thomas Mulcair’s request for information related to the government’s 2012 budget cuts, Jean-Denis Frechette and I spoke yesterday and today more generally about the past and future of the office. Here’s more of our conversation.

Q. How do you reflect on the first five years of this office and Kevin Page’s time in PBO, in terms of the job he did and maybe what you want to do differently?

A. He had to build a PBO, he had to build a team, he had to develop an approach, he had to develop consultations and relationships with Parliament. I think he did it very quickly, you have to give that to my predecessor. He did a job very quickly, in terms of establishing an office like that that, that was totally new, new ground. Of course, he had some difficulties at the beginning, which is normal. And he did that very quickly and he provided excellent work to parliamentarians, just as I did in another function that I had before within the Library of Parliament. That is the first five years. I want to assure continuity to that office. That’s what I told the team. The first thing I told the team is it is business as usual. Continuity is important because, believe it or not, I like all parliamentarians. I really like them. They deserve to have good work in terms of this kind of work, in depth analysis on the nation’s finances, on the estimates, on the economic trends. They need these kind of documents and products and services, which is more than what the Library of Parliament does in terms of research. The operational plan is something that Mr. Page developed and I endorse the operational plan as I told the team right at the beginning.

Q. There was a piece written by Stephen Tapp, who was an economist with the PBO for awhile. And he was setting out what the next PBO needed to do and one of the things he focused on was building bridges or opening lines of communication between the PBO and government departments. Do some of the bridges need to be rebuilt here? Do relationships need to be mended between the public service and the PBO?

A. First, Stephen Tapp is a brilliant economist. He did very good work for the PBO. He’s one among many people who commented and made some recommendations on what I should do or not do. I mean, I can mention Stephen Gordon and Kevin Milligan and so on, including you, I think. I don’t know which one I should listen to more. I will listen to me and to the clients. I will listen to parliamentarians. Building bridges, as I said, I work with all parliamentarians for a long, long time, I always build bridges. Is it a matter of rebuilding? Is it a matter of tone? Of style? I am who I am. You know, Jean-Denis Frechette, with my own tone, my own style. I don’t say that we, being the PBO team, has a bad relationship with the executive. I think it’s more a situation where there is misconception or misunderstanding. And already this week I had conversations with high executives in the public service and the tone is okay. And we will continue. I will develop my own network, my own consultation. But my first priority right now is I want, when Parliament comes back—five years ago there was a consultation conducted with parliamentarians to develop the operational plan, to develop the modus operandi of the PBO. I think after five years it’s time to have another round of consultation with parliamentarians. Keep in mind, parliamentarians are my only clients.

Q. Is there a way to describe how your style will differ from Kevin Page’s?

A. Well, I don’t compare myself with Kevin Page. I am who I am. I’m Jean-Denis Frechette. I want my leadership to be conciliatory. Certainly I want dialogue, I want to have honest, constructive dialogue and action with various stakeholders. So I will be conciliatory. I will not be—and I repeat, I will not be—complacent. We have products, we have documents that in the future maybe will be controversial, there will be hard, difficult things to be said, they will be said. But that being said … parliamentarians are those who are the ultimate watchdogs. I mean, I’m there to help them, guide them … I come from an old school, the Peter Dobell and Mel Cappe school where the elected people are those who are empowered with this capacity to scrutinize and hold the government in terms of the budget.

Q. This issue of MPs’ ability to scrutinize the estimates and hold the government to account has been building up for the last few years as a concern. And it’s something that Kevin Page took on fairly directly. There was a quote of his a few years ago where he said, “The executive is well taken care of. The question is how you close the gap for other parliamentarians.” Is that something that motivates you? Is that a concern that’s top of mind for you?

A. I cannot change the way that Parliament operates. I cannot change the way that government operates. In 2002, I think, there was something in the Speech from the Throne—it gave the Library of Parliament a big amount of money. We sat together, the managers of the library at that time, and said, how can we use that money to be useful for parliament? And we decided to create what we call the estimate cluster, to help parliamentarians to do a better job in monitoring and scrutinizing the estimates. And so we did. We didn’t have any legislative powers. Now, with the legislative power, it gives me, as PBO, a little bit more capacity to help these parliamentarians, but I cannot change the way that they review or spend time. And, as you know, they don’t spend much time anymore. I miss the good old days, because I was there when committees spent two weeks having the minister, the assistant deputy minister, the deputy minister. We don’t have that anymore. As I said, I’m the old school. I remember that and I wish that it would be like that again.

Q. I’ve heard that argument before. The counter argument is that parliamentarians, in addition to maybe not being motivated enough to hold the government to account, to hold the power of the purse, they just simply don’t have the ability to. They don’t have the knowledge, they don’t have the research.

A. I disagree with that. I don’t think it’s a matter of ability. I think they have good tools, PBO being one of these tools. They have their own research [bureaus], they have the Library of Parliament, and the analysts of the Library of Parliament who are sitting on committees as advisors, and they have many, many publications that can help them. I don’t think they don’t have the ability or the capacity, I think it’s a matter of Parliament now has this cycle now, it’s a busy cycle and the cycles are shorter than they used to be. It’s the reality of 2013.

Q. Some of the concerns that have been raised about the PBO involve the actual legislation that sets out the position. In your mind does that legislation need to change? Does the PBO need to be made an independent officer of Parliament? Do the powers of it to compel documentation, do they need to be reinforced?

A. You know, I am old enough to know that as long as I’m not elected I cannot do much with the legislation. When I applied, I knew what the job was, where it was located and what the legislation was. If the legislators over the coming months they ask to have some kind of analysis or discussion about what I think, I can share with them. For the moment, I have a function that is part of the Library of Parliament, I will work with that. If the function becomes part of something else—because there are other models … for the moment, I’m where I am and I am quite open to discuss with the legislators eventually.

Q. When you say there was a misconception or misunderstanding between the PBO and the executive, what was the misconception or misunderstanding?

A. Well, I think that sometimes the interpretation was that maybe the information requested was cabinet information only, but I think it’s a matter of discussion and that’s it. I think that eventually people understand. I think people are open-minded. Of course, if you’re dealing with a controversial issue, it’s maybe more difficult. But we have people who have very good contacts and who keep good relationships with the executive. And I hope it will continue.

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