Jean-Denis Fréchette isn’t afraid of getting stung.
Ottawa’s new Parliamentary Budget Officer inherits a job where his every decision is likely to provoke criticism from either the government or opposition benches.
But the low-profile economist who spent the past 27 years as a researcher in the quiet confines of the Library of Parliament has a surprising second life: beekeeping.
“If a beekeeper is nice but firm with bees, they tend not to sting,” he said. “If you are nervous and abrupt, they do.”
Clearly there are a few lessons from his several decades of beekeeping that can be applied to his new job.
Mr. Fréchette has heard and read the early criticism that his appointment marks a dramatic change for the PBO.
The Conservatives made no secret of their displeasure with the first PBO, Kevin Page, and some see Mr. Fréchette as the government’s choice to neuter Parliament’s spending watchdog.
But in his first sit-down interview since his appointment three weeks ago, Mr. Fréchette rejected many of those concerns.
“Continuity is really the big thing here,” he said. “Parliamentarians deserve to have this kind of good work that they already had in the past from the PBO.”
The PBO has provided a steady stream of widely respected research that sometimes challenges government claims about the cost of federal programs, from the cost of fighter jets to the long-term implications of an aging population.
The office was created in 2008 by the Conservative government as a second opinion for Parliament, inspired by allegations that past governments would play with surplus and deficit targets for political advantage.
Mr. Page’s work hit a wall as he attempted to get departments to detail how they would meet the billions in spending cuts outlined in the 2012 federal budget. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair had asked the PBO to dig up the information and both the PBO and Mr. Mulcair took the issue to Federal Court.
The case was dismissed this year on a technicality and Mr. Mulcair wants the new PBO to take the departments back to court. Mr. Mulcair has already accused the new PBO of failing to protect the rights of MPs. Mr. Fréchette has so far disagreed, saying that he would like to try a few other options – such as complaining to the Speakers of the House of Commons and Senate – before going to court.
Mr. Fréchette has spent his entire career outside of the public eye. He speaks in the cautious language of an Ottawa bureaucrat, as he outlines his approach to the job.
He says the reports from the PBO will continue in the same vein as under Mr. Page. They will continue to be made public, he said, addressing another concern that they might be given to MPs in private like research reports from the Parliamentary Library.
His comments suggest that while he will be available to the media, he doesn’t plan to keep talking about his reports long after they’ve been released.
“It’s a little bit the way that I operated in my past job. You have to say something [and] you say it. But after that, the real watchdogs – everyone calls the PBO the watchdog – the real watchdogs of the public finances are the parliamentarians. They are elected and they have a role to play when they vote on the Main Estimates and so on. That’s their role.”
That kind of language will sit well with some of Mr. Page’s critics, who felt his public comments went beyond the job’s original description. Mr. Fréchette declines to compare himself to Mr. Page directly, noting that everyone is different. The two men worked together at times in the same building, and often ran into each other in the underground parking garage after biking to work.
Mr. Page has expressed concern with Mr. Fréchette’s appointment because the new PBO does not have any experience inside government working on federal budgets. Mr. Fréchette’s response is that he is a manager of a team and his job is to ensure the team includes the required expertise. He has no criticism of Mr. Page, the first PBO.
“Some people said he was a crusader. I think it was more to have the office known. It’s difficult to do that. He did a great job in a very short time,” he said. “But now it’s another era.”