Check back for full coverage of Kevin Page’s very first budget progress report, which he will deliver to the Finance committee at 3:30 p.m.
Well, this is exciting: even for the Finance committee, this is a near unprecedented media turnout for a non-ministerial appearance, which should give you some idea of what we’re expecting from the inaugural budget progress report from the parliamentary budget office.
Wow, even the chair is excited — he could barely restrain his gavel hand until the clock struck half past three. We’re on. The PBO himself – who looks unflappably dapper, given his often precarious position vis a vis the object of his oversight – introduces his “panel”.
After a brief recap of why he’s here, Page explains that he’s here to give the committee some less than cheerful news _- there has been, he says, a “significant deterioration” in the outlook for the Canadian economy. Well, that’s disappointing, if not really a surprise — altough really. It’s not like Page has been Little PBO Sunshine since this unpleasantness began. Oh, and he also thinks that the government might consider a more vigourous, permanent reporting process based on international best practices. But enough about him – back to our unexpectedly rapidly deteriorating economy!
In Page’s view, “high risk indicators” auger ill for the Canadian economy – even ill-er than at the time that the budget was tabled. Oh, this isn’t a happy story at all. The Conservatives at the table aren’t looking at Page – they’re flipping through the handout, and, ITQ assumes, emailing Central for updated talking points.
Oh, and I should probably note – and would have, but he got right to the bad stuff without sufficient preamble to allow me to mention this earlier, and now I’m so depressed that I’ve tuned out his presentation for the moment, but trust me, it’s awful – that PBO analysts, helpful little troopers that they are, have identified “key information gaps” in the first report from the government, including – but not limited to – exactly how the $3 billion fund will be spent. Are you listening, OLO?
Interesting: Page doesn’t categorically dismiss the notion of pumping *more* stimulus into the economy, but he definitely seems to be reluctant to come right out and recommend it.
And — questions. Actually, first, a promise from John McCallum on behalf of his party to support the PBO, and to do whatever it can to ensure his budget is restored. Take that, Carolyn Bennett! Anyway, after doing his best to debunk the notion that the Liberals are siding with the government against Page and his office, he wonders how opposition parties – or, indeed, anyone – can keep track of spending when the government refuses to provide the details. After all, his party has just launched a new website to monitor spending – “onprobation.ca”, he shamelessly shills, prompting someone else to add, helpfully, “not .com!”
Page tells McCallum that he has, in fact, met with various ministers – Flaherty and Vic Toews, to name two – and sounds cautiously hopeful, but not quite enough for McCallum, who wonders whether this might have to be dealt with in the future.
Hey, does anyone out there watch Lie To Me? I’d love to know what the microexpression on Mike Wallace’s face right now. It’s sort of an exaggerated pout, with narrowed, almost downcast eyes.
Okay, that’s it for the first round – I forgot how short they are at Finance, only seven minutes which is really not nearky enough time to get anywhere with even an obliging witness. Onto Jean Yves Laforest, who wonders if the PBO is actually saying that the current stimulus is not, in fact, working – not in terms of saving jobs and protecting industries, that is.
Page doesn’t quite disagree with Laforest, although he doesn’t contradict his conclusion that Page thinks the money has to be better targeted. Page confesses that he’s not all that comfortable discussing EI as a policy, although it is, in a sense, a stimulus, but notes that it actually goes beyond that, given the projected job losses.
Laforest picks up on the veiled criticism – well, not quite criticism, but recommendation on how to improve – of the government’s reporting efforts so far – especially the now famous Vote 35, and the $3 billion. Page recalls that he had indeed suggested that a list be provided of money spent from that envelope — whatever happened to that? – but doesn’t seem to have given up on the idea that future monitoring could be more detailed. Laforest wonders if he needs a “very specific mandate” to deliver future reports, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Over to the government side of the table, and the parliamentary secretary – Ted Menzies – who begins by chiding the opposition members for giving the (very, very wrong) impression that his party doesn’t support the PBO – why, it was the Conservatives who *created* the PBO! They made you, baby – and they can break you! Wait, that wasn’t his point at all. Sorry about that. Anyway, he wants to point out that the government *also* has a website. More than one, even – there is a website on the budget, on Afghanistan. Accountability? Two. Dot. Oh.
Finally, Menzies gets back to the issue – the report – and, after a quick semantic moue over his use of the verb “plunge” – it seems a bit *harsh* to him, really, but then he’s not an economist – before taking issue with the formula that the PBO uses to come up with its projections.
Oh, it’s on. Although Page does praise the Conservatives for providing so much information in its initial report – I know; we need to come up with a better way to differentiate the various budget reports and reports on reports and reviews of reports – he is ready and willing to defend his office’s valour, at least as far as the economic magic eight ball.
And — suddenly, this has turned into the Library committee. Actually, I guess technically it would be the Library Committee Committee; Thomas Mulcair is on a highly entertaining, if largely entirely off topic rant about the turf war, and all but accusing various MPs – Liberal, presumably, although he doesn’t name names – of acting as mere catspaw for the parliamentary librarian. Eventually, he all but dares the Liberals to make the same pledge to protect the PBO at tomorrow’s meeting of the Library committee.
Once Mulcair’s time expires, it’s back to the Liberals. John McKay presses the PBO on the level of cooperation that they’ve received from the Finance department, which prompts Chris Matier – a PBO analyst – to do his best to downplay the notion that they’ve been stonewalled completely, but acknowledges that there has been some difficulty in obtaining the projection data.
Laforest is *still* bent on getting Page to confirm that the current stimulus package isn’t working; in response, he – Page, that is – offers to “clarify his mandate” — he’s comfortable discussing economic policy, and pointing to the “output gap” that has crept up, but he can’t really discuss specific policy measures. “We need to stimulate the economy,” Page agrees – as soon as possible, in fact. But he’s not comfortable suggesting other measures.
A brief interlude with Bob Dechert, who wants to know what Page thinks of the latest developments in the US; specifically, the impact that the new stimulus package might have on the Canadian economy. Basically, he wants Page to admit that the situation is changing so quickly that it is impossible to know what the future may bring. Page – who is getting a little bit frustrated, I think, over being consistently misunderstood by both opposition and government members – reminds him that he’s also not in the forecasting business. He provides briefing papers; parliamentarians do the rest. He reports, they — oh, you know the drill.
Okay, that was the most tragically transparent attempted segue ever: Somehow, Dechert went from the budget forecast to a speech delivered by noted anklebiter David Dodge yesterday – as reported by the Kingston Whig Standard! – in which he *did not* blame the Harper government for the current economic imbroglio. So now his views are worth listening to, yes? I get so confused.
Martha Hall Findlay is up, and she wants to know more about the proposed asset sales – are the government’s more rose-tinted scenarios even vaguely realistic? Sahir Kharm, whose last name I may have misspelled since his water glass was blocking the last two letters, confirms that yes, there is usually a delay. Page goes further; based on the information available, he doesn’t think it is realistic at all.
You know, I understand the strategy, but when the government members use their time to subtly try to rebut Page’s analysis, it seems a bit – well, defensive.
Oh, apparently, this has nothing to do with the PBO. Nothing! It’s an entirely high-minded attempt by the government to discourage the “doom and gloom”-filled predictions of certain economists – not naming any names – which could lead to a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. He quotes at length from “a few years back” to that effect, and after about ten seconds, it’s obvious that he’s actually quoting John McCallum during his days in government – oh ho ho ho, that never gets old – but he keeps going until the joke, such as it is, is the victim of such tone deaf timing that the only person who laughs is Mike Wallace.
Update: ITQ sources report that, as predicted by cynical livebloggers weeks ago, the Conservatives are filibustering merrily away organizational meeting for the Subcommittee on Food Safety.
Speaking of Mike Wallace – he’s up, and he has quite a few questions for the PBO, so he best be succinct in his replies. Actually, it sounds more like he wants to yell at Kevin Page for having the temerity to analyse the first quarter of 2009 – January to March – when the goverment fiscal year begins on April 1. Aha! Or – you know, not.
He fumes about calendar years versus fiscal years for a bit, and then bemoans the refusal of the Liberals to support *his* motion for peer revierw of Page’s work. Page, for his part, says he’s a big fan of peer review, so Wallace hastily moves to his real gripe: Why so negative? Why doesn’t he focus on the *good news*? The stuff that Canada is doing *right*, and where we’re in “better shape” than the Americans? To quote Maeby – Let’s stop for a moment and think about how ridiculous that statement was.
Back to Mulcair, who once again tries to ingratiate himself with Page by asking, with deep concern, for an update on those poor seconded Finance staffers who may be forced to return to their indentured servitude under the Dark Lord Flaherty. Page agrees that it would be best to hire these wunderkind permanently, and – that’s that, really. Not much more Mulcair can do here, although I’m sure it’s heartening to the wunderkind in question to hear such stalwart support from the socialist hordes.
A few economicentric questions – as opposed to the extreme micronanoeconomic question of the PBO budget – and then it’s back to MacKay, who muses over the potential spinoff benefits to selling off the Eternal Flame, given gas prices. I hope you’re not suggesting that go ahead without a full environmental assessment, mister – by federal, municipal AND parliamentary authorities.
And back to the Bloc Quebecois, who have also given up the pretence of being entirely preoccupied with the economic state of the nation. This time around, Laforest wants to know more about the projected cuts to Page’s office — given the fiscal climate, after all, the ability of parliamentarians to access high quality analysis is of paramount importance. This gives Page the opening he needs to praise the unique and highly sought after skills of his staffers — including the two sitting beside him at the table — without whom he wouldn’t be able to deliver such thorough reports.
Oh dear, tension seems to be brewing over the PBO’s access to documents — one particular document, according to Menzies, that may or may not breach cabinet confidentiality – he has a legal opinion that he says it would. That, as far as he knows, is the only request that hasn’t been fulfilled to date. Mulcair challenges him to table that legal opinion via point of order, and after first noting that it was “oral confirmation”, Menzies pledges to do his best to provide the information, although it’s not clear in what format.
You know, you have to wonder what will happen to the PBO second-ees if they *are* sent back to Finance. Will they be shunned by civilized Esplanade Laurier society? Is there a humanitarian argument to giving them permanent refugee status within the sanctuary of parliament?
McCallum is also intrigued by these allegedly privileged cabinet confidences, and points out that they can’t be *that* secret if the government gives the same information to private sector forecasters.
He also mocks – yes, that was total mockery – the much-touted website – actionplan.gc.ca, I assume – for continuing to exhort the Senate to pass the budget, which happened two weeks ago. In general, he doesn’t like the idea of depending on the numbers provided by the government, since it is the government, after all, that is “on probation”. That URL would make a fabulous t-shirt, by the way.
Wow, Mike Wallace is getting downright testy with Page. I remember this used to happen from time to time at Ethics — he’d be off in his happy place for hours, and then suddenly, something would set him off. Of course, that was also the Ethics committee, so there was always going to be *something*.
Back to John McKay for what has to be, if not the last round, pretty darned close: he focuses on that “significant deterioration” that the PBO brought up way back at the beginning of the meeting. The starting point is simply much worse now, Page confirms.
After McKay tries one last time to get Page to call for a massive new stimulus plan – he comes closer, but still won’t “say the words”, as a reporter would put it – the chair brings the meeting to a close. Just in time, since there’s a vote. Page, meanwhile, slips easily into the waiting scrum, and ITQ – well, she flees into the night. There’s only so much macroeconomics she can take in a night, after al.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.