Popping champagne corks would have been indecent, but the Harper Conservatives were quietly thrilled that Kevin Page departed last week as Parliamentary Budget Officer.
Mr. Page, more than any other person, was a burr in the backside of the government. He chided, challenged and confronted the government on issue after issue. He insisted, usually correctly but sometimes not, that facts were being hidden or misrepresented so that parliamentarians and Canadians at large could not fully understand how and why their money was being spent.
In this, he was profoundly correct, witness to which was last week’s federal budget that contained dozens of impenetrable phrases and bland assertions not backed by analysis or fact. When Mr. Page tried after the 2012 budget to find out how money was being sliced from departmental spending, the government frustrated him. He went to court, but nothing has yet come from that effort.
Mr. Page’s departing shot was typical. His office examined the costs of the Canadian criminal justice system, and observed that the costs have soared since the Harperites began introducing their “tough on crime” measures in 2007. The costs were soaring, but the crime rate was falling. Costs were up for provincial and federal corrections, and for provincial courts.
The Harperites might have replied that their policies were worth every penny because, after all, crime rates were falling – except that the rates had been falling since 1991, long before the Conservatives took office. Less crime but more spending is a hard circle to square.
What galled the Conservatives the most was Mr. Page’s insistence that cost estimates for the F-35 fighter jet were askew. Of course, he was correct, as the Auditor-General confirmed, but no government likes to be called to task for something as central to its strategy. After all, remember those photo ops involving Stephen Harper and other ministers in the last election campaign at factories that were going to get all those jobs from subcontracting for the plane. And remember, too, the government’s assertions that the numbers were accurate and the critics wrong, whereas, in fact, the reverse was true.
Mr. Page had a small budget but a loud voice, and he rankled the Conservatives every time he opened it. The irony of each conflict was not lost on those with a sense of recent history – it was the Harper Conservatives who created the Parliamentary Budget Office.
The PBO was one of many initiatives they dreamed up while on the opposition benches – an often dangerous place where the imperative of getting elected drives out serious reflection. So it was with the Conservatives, who sought to capitalize on the sponsorship affair that plagued the Liberals by pledging to be holier-than-thou if elected. The Conservatives were going to campaign on “cleaning up” government and, in the political window, they would place stern and impressive measures testifying to their determination.
They thus overdosed on creating new offices to oversee what government did, initiated new practices to check and double-check the work of civil servants, established an office of criminal prosecution, and encouraged the office of the Auditor-General – the net effect of which, as every student of government now understands, has been weighing down the work of government with more bureaucracy and cumbersome procedures, and a culture of everyone looking over the shoulder, the antithesis of creativity and innovation.
Many of these measures were combined in the Accountability Act, a hugely overwrought omnibus bill whose provisions have done more to gum up government than anything seen in Ottawa for decades.
The idea of a PBO grew out of this world of mental suspicions that framed how Conservatives saw government in opposition. They convinced themselves that Liberal finance ministers, especially Paul Martin, had systematically faked or distorted numbers. They peered south and saw the influential Congressional Budget Office, whose analyses are universally respected, and decided Parliament needed something similar.
The office was to be lodged in the Library of Parliament where only occasional heed would be paid to the PBO’s reports. Mr. Page, however, had other ideas, much to the government’s chagrin. The Conservatives are very glad he’s gone.