Stephen Harper's Conservatives have been fairly criticized for making the culture of government more secretive, after pledging to make it more transparent. But the recent conduct of a joint committee of senators and members of the House of Commons, on the future of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, has made plain that a disregard for accountability transcends party lines.
Since his position was created by the Conservatives shortly after they came to office (an admirable early attempt to live up to their campaign promises), Mr. Page has brought much-needed scrutiny to the government's financial projections, including the size of the federal deficit and the cost of the war effort in Afghanistan. As a reward, he has been undermined at every turn, including a denial of the funds he needs to do his job properly.
The opposition might have been expected to leap to Mr. Page's defence, and a few of its members have; the Liberal MP Bob Rae recently praised him for "making a tremendous contribution to the development of strong public policy," and said he "should be encouraged rather than attacked." But, when the Library of Parliament committee was charged with making recommendations about Mr. Page's position, opposition MPs sided with the government in criticizing him for overstepping his bounds. While calling for his office's annual funding to be increased, as Mr. Page had requested, the committee unanimously recommended that he cease publicly reporting most of his findings, until "the confidentiality is lifted" by the parliamentarian or the committee that asked for the information.
Mr. Page appears to have attracted cross-partisan ire by interpreting his role as reporting to the public, rather than to parliamentarians. "I'm quite concerned the Parliamentary Budget Officer sees himself as an independent practitioner who can report whenever he wants," the Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett complained. "If the Parliamentary Budget Officer sees himself as truly independent, then he would believe that he could release [a report]whenever he wants to, as opposed to the wishes of the parliamentarian or the parliamentary committee that had commissioned the study."
In effect, Ms. Bennett was echoing comments by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that Canada already has an auditor-general, and does not need a second one. But Mr. Page's reporting is required because of the practices of Canada's finance ministers, including Mr. Flaherty. There should be no need for a watchdog to assess the credibility of government forecasts (an area not typically addressed by the auditor-general, who combs over expenditures). But because successive governments have proved so unreliable in their projections - the Liberals low-balling annual surpluses, the Conservatives claiming they would avoid deficit - Mr. Page has come to perform a valuable public service by clarifying where matters really stand.
Parliamentarians should be more worried about why that service is needed than about jealously guarding their turf.
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