Toward a stronger PBO - Macleans.ca

Toward a stronger PBO

Thomas Mulcair to table legislation this week

by

Thomas Mulcair will apparently table a private member’s bill this week with the aim of strengthening the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

The New Democrats tabled a motion earlier this month that sought, in part, to establish support for making the PBO “a full, independent officer of Parliament.” That motion was defeated with the Conservatives voting against. During debate on the motion, Conservative MPs dismissed the idea of making the PBO an independent officer. (The PBO currently exists as an office within the Library of Parliament. There are eight individuals that are generally considered officers of Parliament.)

Peggy Nash already has a bill that would establish the PBO as an officer of Parliament, but the New Democrats tell the CBC that Mr. Mulcair’s bill will differ somewhat.

Establishing the PBO as an officer of Parliament is just one of several issues that might be dealt with to strengthen the office. Kevin Page offered his thoughts on improving the office last month in an email to Global’s Tom Clark, specifically pointing to five issues, including the PBO’s mandate and the PBO’s power to demand information.

The parliamentary budget officer has a broad legislative mandate and a relatively modest budget to serve Parliament and Canadians – an issue parliamentarians may wish to address. A recent report by the parliamentary operations and estimates committee in June made a number of recommendations to strengthen the estimates system by allowing the budget officer to provide analytical support to help members of Parliament scrutinize the numbers. The issue playing out today with the government and deputy ministers relates to ensuring members of Parliament have sufficient financial information to carry out their fiduciary responsibilities before approval of departmental and agency spending authorities…

he budget officer’s power of direct request for information has been publicly and politically debated in recent months over budget information related to spending restraint. A year later, MPs and Canadians do not have spending plans for federal departments consistent with Budget 2012, even though MPs are asked to approve departmental spending authorities. The parliamentary budget officer’s efforts to obtain information on spending restraint were criticized by the federal cabinet as an action that exceeds its mandate. This is now the subject of a reference opinion in federal court. The information at stake is critical to the estimates process. Parliamentarians may wish to consider if they want to clarify and strengthen powers of agents and officers of Parliament in the request of information deemed critical for them to carry out their mandates. We need a conversation that not only strengthens the principle of fiscal transparency but helps create a culture of transparency and analytical support for decision-making.

Scott Clark and Peter DeVries have argued for a fully independent and better-funded PBO. For further background, this essay by Gary Levy and this review by Alan Gilmore are helpful.