Courage and integrity are important qualities in public life, and Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page demonstrated both during his five-year term, which ended last week. He may not always have been right in his disagreements with the government on everything from the costs of crime bills to the sustainability of Old Age Security to the price of F-35s, but an independent officer of the Library of Parliament is a valuable element to help maintain and enhance fiscal control and integrity. It would be a mistake to diminish this office.
No one ever called Mr. Page a limelight hog during his 27 years in supporting roles for prime ministers and cabinet ministers. But he was an outspoken PBO, and as his term wore on, and he came to fear that the office itself would be “unwound” when his term ended, he became a highly visible and fervent presence.
This government has not suffered watchdogs gladly. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has called Mr. Page publicly to task for allegedly going beyond his mandate, and for being, in Mr. Flaherty’s view, just plain wrong. But Mr. Page was hardheaded – he apparently has a steel plate in his head – and he did the job he was asked to do. “For watchdogs, you don’t want puppies,” he said once.
A central job of Parliament is to decide how tax dollars are spent. Yet the government has been at times reluctant to let the public – and Mr. Page – know how it arrives at its projections, such as those related to crime bills. This is the government that created the PBO in 2006, as part of the Accountability Act. It was partly a reaction to a belief that Liberal governments had chronically understated surpluses.
Mr. Page has gone to court for an advisory opinion on what information his office is entitled to. He reported that spending cuts were focused on front-line services, while the cost of internal services spiked, contrary to the government’s stated plans. He has criticized the appointment of the Parliamentary Librarian as interim PBO. And all that was just last week (well, close anyway).
He also criticized the composition of the panel that will appoint his successor because it includes a member of the Privy Council Office, which advises the prime minister and cabinet. There isn’t much he hasn’t criticized.
In the first flush of power, the Conservatives established the PBO. They were right to do so, and should stick by their original vision. Wanted: a PBO with a steel plate in his or her head.