Friday was the last day on the job for Kevin Page, Canada’s first Parliamentary budget watchdog. Appointed by the Harper government in 2008, he spent five years butting heads with the Conservatives, who came to resent his analysis and criticism of their spending plans.
Mr. Page went out fighting. On Friday, his office was in court trying to get the Harper government to release advance details on how it will cut billions of dollars to balance the budget. The government has yet to appoint a permanent successor.
The veteran public servant talked to The Globe and Mail about the past half decade – in which Finance Minister Jim Flaherty publicly turned on him in 2012, calling his work on one file “unbelievable, unreliable, incredible” and accusing him of wandering from his mandate.
Looking back, were you disappointed by how Mr. Flaherty attacked you?
I have got thick skin. I have a steel plate inside my head. I’ve lost a son. I’m not scared. What am I going to be scared of?
Most people aren’t like you. They’re worried about their public service careers. How hard was it for recruiters to find you?
Behind the scenes, nobody wanted to be the Parliamentary budget officer. Nobody who had a job was interested because they were saying, “I have got another 10 years of public service left and this would have to be your last job in government.”
What were you trying to accomplish?
I worked for 27 years supporting finance ministers or prime ministers or presidents of the Treasury Board, but now I had responsibility to support Parliamentarians. We want them to have the same information that finance ministers and prime ministers have before they vote on spending – so they understand the potential costs of this crime bill or this fighter plane.
So do you think Members of Parliament are making informed decisions?
No. I think they are being completely undermined. There’s a table in Budget 2013 that says we are now taking $14-billion every year out of the direct program spending base. Where is the detailed plan on those cuts? Ottawa’s direct program spending basically flat-lines for five years. We’re saying show us the plans. They’re saying no.
Your counterpart in the United States might be the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), although it’s far better funded. Do they get the information they need?
Yes. The biggest problem in Canada I would argue is cultural. In the U.S., there’s a sense that this is taxpayers’ money and the CBO should see whatever they want. Our system is set up more where people think: “Why would I give you what’s behind our costing on ships, fighter planes and crime bills because if you get it and criticize me, you’re going to make my life difficult.”
Do you think the Conservatives, who promised this office in 2005 when they were in opposition, regret setting it up?
If they were in opposition, they would be very happy to have this office. We are what they wanted us to be in 2005 when they talked about an independent budget authority. But look at what’s happening. On Monday, the interim parliamentary budget officer is the parliamentary librarian: a great person, but not somebody who’s produced forecasts. I think there’s an effort under way to unwind this office.
Your conduct is very different from the rest of Ottawa’s public service culture.
Is it a good culture though? We need to start scratching our heads to ask whether the public service is performing as it should. Still, there is an enormous amount of fear. I don’t know that the ruling political class sees the value of transparency.
What’s your biggest satisfaction?
The quality of our work, starting from the costing of the mission in Afghanistan to our last paper on the costing of the criminal justice system. We sweated over it.
What’s next? Will you end up at a university?
Probably, creating an institute of fiscal studies or that type of initiative to carry on this work.
This interview has been edited and condensed