PBO launches new service to cost out party platforms, despite the political risks

The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) is gearing up for a new experiment in democracy. Beginning June 23, it will be providing an independent costing service to political parties that want to attach a reliable price tag to their election promises - but the exercise comes with considerable political risks.

Canada follows the Netherlands, Australia in election platform costing service meant to offer credibility

In a novel experiment for Canadian democracy, the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) will begin providing a neutral costing service for political parties who want Canadians to know how much their promises for the 2019 federal election will cost. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

The next federal election isn't happening until October but one federal institution is starting its election countdown in June — with a novel experiment in democracy that's fraught with political risks.

The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) will suspend its normal functions on June 23 to take on a new, temporary task: costing out election platforms for parties seeking a neutral and objective estimate of what their policies might cost taxpayers.

The new platform-costing mandate was promised by the Liberal Party in the 2015 election and quietly became law through an omnibus bill in June 2017.

"Canadians will have a credible, non-partisan way to compare each party's fiscal plans," Justin Trudeau's Liberals promised during the campaign.

Armed with $500,000 in special funding, the PBO has been gearing up for months and meeting individually with party representatives to set ground rules.

Its challenge is to immunize the exercise from political game-playing and partisan sparring.

Yves Giroux, the parliamentary budget officer, says the new election-platform costing service will have rules to guard against political games-playing. (twitter.com)

"We will not be costing proposals that have as their main goal to embarrass another party," said Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux. "There may be accusations of political bias."

A platform-costing service could be abused for partisan purposes. For example, one party could introduce a platform and choose not to have the PBO cost it. A rival party could then submit that platform to PBO costing in order to humiliate the party that authored it.

The PBO has said it will not cost any party's platform unless the party specifically requests it.

Publicly supported election platform costing is a new thing in Canada, and remains rare elsewhere.

The Netherlands adopted such a system in 1986 and Australia's version has been evolving since 1998. Giroux said the PBO is modelling its costing service on Australia's after consulting with officials there, including his counterpart Jenny Wilkinson.

'Credibility boost'

For the Oct. 21 federal election, parties and even independent MPs have the option of bringing their platform proposals in advance to the PBO for an independent — and confidential — assessment of their potential costs to the public treasury.

If those platform planks are then made public by the parties, the PBO is required to post on its website the full costing analyses. Parties and MPs are not required to have their policies costed, but doing so will give them a "credibility boost," said Giroux.

The office has met already with all the federal parties. Some have said they will use the service, "others have said they still need to discuss internally," Giroux said, without naming names.

I'm fully aware of the risk for leaks. People talk.- Yves Giroux, parliamentary budget officer, on the risks of the new election platform costing service

Australian officials have warned Canada to be ready for a lot of requests, many of them vague and lacking the details needed for a proper costing.

There's also a danger that one party could quickly deplete the PBO's limited resources for this service, or deliberately distort the PBO's findings.

Giroux said his office has protocols in place to manage such problems. It has spoken to party representatives about what they are and are not allowed to do with the costing service. It also has the power to issue public statements correcting the record if politicians twist its analyses for partisan advantage.

Individual MPs who have no official party status in the House of Commons — Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, for example — will have equal access to the service.

The service officially launches on June 23, 120 days before the election date.

The costing process actually begins in early June, when the PBO is expected to publish an economic and fiscal forecast. That forecast is meant to be used as a baseline for the parties as they finish crafting their election promises.

Giroux said his office will not tinker with that baseline before the election date, to head off any claims that the PBO is somehow "meddling in the political campaign."

Keeping it confidential

The parties themselves, of course, need assurances their analysis requests will be kept secret and won't be tipped to the competition. Parties might decide to drop certain platform planks if the PBO reports a price tag that's too high — and they wouldn't want to see their opponents capitalizing on abandoned proposals.

"I'm fully aware of the risk for leaks," said Giroux. "People talk. Ottawa is a big town in the eyes of some, but a small town when you talk about politics."

To maintain confidentiality, only senior PBO officials will know which parties are requesting the service. The PBO analysts won't know the identities of the parties asking for costing reports. Neither will bureaucrats in federal departments who may be providing data under memorandums of understanding with Finance Canada, Statistics Canada and others.

Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page applauds the new costing service, while acknowledging it comes with risks. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Kevin Page was Canada's first parliamentary budget officer. He applauds the PBO's move.

"In the past, political parties struggled to get access to economists and accountants with experience and credibility," he said. "Now this task will be a public good."

Page acknowledged the political risks, including the possibility of leaks and disinformation campaigns.

"Many of these potential risks can be managed with good processes and competent analysis and leadership," he said. "PBO is well underway in managing these risks."

Giroux said he's confident solid planning will allow the PBO to avoid the political pitfalls.

"We want to make it a success," he said. "We want Canadians to have the best information possible."

The PBO has about 40 full-time employees and an annual budget of $7 million. It became a fully independent agent of Parliament in 2017. Before that, the office answered to the Library of Parliament.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby