Tories to 'unwind' budget office, departing PBO warns

Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, whose five-year mandate came to an end on Friday says the federal government is sending a "very strong signal" that it's "moving to unwind" the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, in an interview with CBC Radio's The House.
Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, whose five-year mandate came to an end on Friday says the federal government is sending a very strong signal that it's moving to unwind the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, in an interview with CBC Radio's The House. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada's first budget watchdog could also be the last, says the departing public civil servant with 27 years of experience who held the job until Friday when his five-year mandate came to an end.

In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, the former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page told host Evan Solomon that the federal government has already begun to undo the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer as Canadians have known it.

The federal government is sending a "very strong signal" that it's "moving to unwind the office," Page said.

According to Page, either one of two scenarios will unfold in the coming months.

Either the federal government builds "a true legislative budget office even with weak legislation," or it hires a tamer successor to "unwind the office so it becomes part of the library business model which is confidential work," Page said.

If it's the latter, Page's advice to a possible successor is "don't take that job."

"Don't unwind five years of hard work… this is an institution that is too important for the country."

Parliamentarians and their staff count on the Library of Parliament for information, reference, and research services but only a selection of their papers are ever made available to the public.

Page fears that under the library model parliamentarians will have less access to the kind of information the PBO has been able to provide over the past five years.

PBO independence shared

With the release of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's eighth budget on Thursday, the Office of the PBO will still be expected to provide parliamentarians with analysis of the federal budget in the weeks to come.

However, the office is currently in federal court seeking a reference opinion on its mandate after several cabinet ministers accused Page of operating "outside" his mandate after he sought clarification on the government's spending plans stemming from last year's budget.

The Parliament of Canada Act mandates the PBO to provide "independent analysis to the Senate and House of Commons on the state of the nation’s finances, the government estimates and trends in the national economy."

The lawyer for the PBO was in court this week arguing that the statute that created Page's position gives him the legal right to ask government departments for documents and data about whether savings outlined in last spring's budget are achievable.

But the lawyer who is representing the Speaker of the House of Commons Andrew Scheer, said Page's position was created by Parliament and the PBO ought to make his complaints to the House of Commons, through the Speaker, rather than going to the courts.

Page said while it could be weeks before a ruling is known, one sign that the federal government has begun to undo the office, is it appointed Parliamentary Librarian Sonia L'Heureux as the interim budget watchdog.

One of the problems with appointing the chief librarian as interim parliamentary budget officer is that L'Heureux reports directly to the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons further calling into question the independence of the PBO.

The other problem, is the chief librarian has "never worked on a budget," Page said.

"I think it sends a strong signal that we don't want somebody acting in the position of the PBO that has experience and knowledge."

Another sign that the federal government wants to unwind the office, according to Page, is that the process to find a new PBO has been delayed.

The federal government officially opened its search for a permanent budget watchdog on March 7, less than three weeks before the end of Page's mandate.

The job posting called for someone who is "tactful and discreet" and who's good at "achieving consensus."

"My fear is that the office is being broken now through these moves," Page said.

"If the government wanted to send a strong signal that they wanted a true legislative budget office they would have appointed somebody, on an interim basis, from within the office."

Opposition parties 'did not choose to act'

But for the PBO to be truly accountable to Parliament, Page said, the legislation has to change.

"If the legislation doesn't change, this office won't exist over the short term."

Page, soft-spoken but always forthright, did not put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the federal government saying the opposition parties could have done more early on in his mandate to change the legislation and make the PBO truly accountable to Parliament.

Under the current legislation, the PBO is an officer of the Library of Parliament and as such has less teeth than Officers of Parliament, like the auditor general or the chief electoral officers, who are independent from the government of the day.

"There was an opportunity when we had a minority Parliament but to be honest, they did not choose to act," Page said.

"I'm the first parliamentary budget officer and it takes a number of years to create the kind of confidence in our work so I understand… that the opposition parties might have been a bit reluctant."

Speaking on his last day on the job, Page said "I think Canadians and the opposition parties are waking up."

"I think we have demonstrated over five years that there is value and hopefully in the next election this will be an election issue and we'll have a true independent legislative budget office."

Page was appointed in 2008 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper under the 2006 Federal Accountability Act.

During his five-year mandate, Page found himself at odds with the federal government after providing parliamentarians with analysis on the cost of the mission in Afghanistan, the purchase of F-35 fighter jets, Old Age Security, and more recently ship procurement, even criminal justice costs.

Conservatives have repeatedly maintained they are searching for a new permanent Parliamentary Budget Officer, one who is "non-partisan" for the job.