Parliamentary budget office pushes for more power to scrutinize spending

Last year, both the Liberals and the New Democrats, keen to seem different than the Conservatives, promised to strengthen the Parliamentary Budget Office. Now, the PBO has released draft legislation that would newly expand and empower the non-partisan office.

A draft bill released by the PBO suggests new rules for disclosure and review

Last year, both the Liberals and the New Democrats, keen to seem different than the Conservatives, promised to strengthen the Parliamentary Budget Office. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As he prepared to depart the office of the parliamentary budget officer in 2013, Kevin Page fretted openly that the Conservative government was preparing to "unwind" the infant institution and relegate it to obscurity.

But by then Page was already something of a folk hero — his office had shown its potential and a certain political imperative had emerged around it.

"Hopefully ... this will be an election issue," he said, and indeed it was. 

Last year, both the Liberals and the New Democrats, keen to seem different than the Conservatives, promised to strengthen the office. 

Now, after being approached by officials in the Prime Minister's Office this spring, the PBO has released draft legislation that would newly expand and empower the watchdog. If enacted, Parliament would have a further empowered and independent reviewer of the nation's finances.

New rules for disclosure

Currently under the purview of the library of Parliament, under the new legislation, the PBO would be its own stand-alone office. The parliamentary budget officer's appointment  would still recommended by the government, but subject to the approval of the House of Commons and Senate.

New statutes would provide the PBO with greater powers to request documents from the government, including information that might have otherwise been excluded from disclosure as a cabinet confidence.

Kevin Page, Canada's former parliamentary budget officer, once worried that the office he founded would be unwound. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

And the PBO's mandate would be detailed and expanded, including, as the Liberals promised last year, the ability to review campaign platform commitments. 

Within three months of an election date, the PBO would produce a five-year economic and fiscal projection, thus establishing a common baseline for party projections (a point of some dispute last year). 

Similar to arrangements in Australia and the Netherlands, parties would also be able to submit platform proposals to the PBO for independent review.

A bigger PBO

In practice, the PBO would double its own resources: growing from its current size — 18 full-time positions and an annual budget of $2.9 million — to 38 full-time employees, with a budget of $6 million.

That might be described as a pittance as compared to the billions in public funds the office is charged with reviewing.

NDP finance critic Guy Caron says New Democrats are still reviewing the draft legislation — comparing it to a bill that NDP leader Tom Mulcair tabled in the House three years ago — but that "it seems to be an improvement over the current situation, for sure."

Caron says it is a concern, though, that the PBO and PMO were, unbeknownst to MPs, meeting to discuss the office's future.

"This is a very important bill," Caron says, suggesting that the finance committee could be involved in drafting new legislation. "If, eventually, the parliamentary budget officer becomes an independent agent of Parliament, it has to be basically a parliament-wide effort."

Cameron Ahmad, press secretary to the prime minister, said, "It's known that the party made a public commitment to amending the legislation so that the PBO would be fully independent and we're having conversations with them about what that would entail."

  Appearing before the House finance committee in June, Jean-Denis Frechette, the parliamentary budget officer, indicated there had been preliminary discussions with the government.

Meet the new PBO?

It is an unfortunate irony of his time in office that Stephen Harper might never be able to fully brag about his greatest contribution to this country's parliamentary democracy.

It is to Harper's credit that the office of the parliamentary budget officer exists, as the Conservatives promised in 2006 and as was then realized by Page's appointment in 2008.

But it was Harper's government that proceeded to dismiss and stonewall the office's work, culminating in the contested appointment of Page's successor, Frechette. All of it was enough for Kevin Page to write a bookUnaccountable: Truth, Lies and Numbers on Parliament Hill.

But the potential response to that is an even stronger office, with a theoretically intriguing impact even on how policy is debated around elections.

Whether the government is willing to give the PBO new powers for demanding disclosure is an important point. Whether the government is willing to co-operate with those powers is another. And the Liberals have already had one run-in with the budget office.

Some amount of conflict between the government and the legislature's offices of accountability is to be expected. No doubt the PBO and the finance department will periodically disagree on how best to estimate and add.

But, at his most ambitious, Trudeau has mused in the past of reorienting the rules of transparency and accountability around government and this might be one step toward that.

If nothing else, the proposal on the table at least suggests that the PBO is unlikely to be unwound anytime soon.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.