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A statue of Queen Victoria sits in the middle of the Parliament Hill library in Ottawa in this May 30, 2006 file photo. (Tom Hanson/CP)
A statue of Queen Victoria sits in the middle of the Parliament Hill library in Ottawa in this May 30, 2006 file photo. (Tom Hanson/CP)

Ottawa names economist as new budget watchdog Add to ...

The Conservative government has filled the long-vacant position of Parliamentary Budget Officer, selecting veteran economist and Library of Parliament researcher Jean-Denis Fréchette.

Mr. Fréchette has 27 years of experience working on the Hill helping members of Parliament and committees with research requests, but has never worked inside government departments.

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The PBO was created by the Conservative government in an effort to provide Parliament with an independent assessment of the government’s finances. The office produces reports on a wide range of issues – from the cost of fighter jets to the implications of changing demographics – both on its own or at the request of MPs.

Mr. Fréchette‘s predecessor, Kevin Page, was a senior official inside government working on federal budgets prior to his appointment in 2008 and he had recently said similar experience should be a requirement for the position. Mr. Page’s five-year term expired in March.

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan announced Mr. Page’s replacement via a Friday afternoon news release and the minister was not available to comment on the hiring process, which was heavily criticized by the opposition for lacking transparency and independence.

“After more than a quarter-century providing strong, non-partisan support to Senators and Members of the House of Commons, he brings a deep and serious understanding of the needs of the client group that the Parliamentary Budget Officer has a mandate to serve,” said Mr. Van Loan in a statement.

The appointment of someone from the parliamentary library, where research reports are regularly released but are almost never controversial, could be seen as a sign that the government is looking for a lower-profile PBO. Some inside the PBO are concerned that Mr. Fréchette’s appointment means the end of the office in its current form and that PBO reports will adopt the more benign style of the library.

However, those watching the PBO closely say it is hard to predict how Mr. Fréchette will perform and what approach he will take, given that he has not been a public figure.

Mr. Fréchette was not available for interviews, according to the Library of Parliament.

NDP finance critic Peggy Nash said she does not know Mr. Fréchette, but will give him the benefit of the doubt.

“Mr. Fréchette has some big shoes to fill,” she said.

Mr. Fréchette also takes the position knowing that Mr. Page will be close by, heading up a new office at the University of Ottawa that aims to produce analytical reports that are similar to the work of the PBO.

“Mr. Fréchette is a smart man but has no experience working at a central agency on a federal budget,” said Mr. Page in an e-mail. The former PBO said he hopes Mr. Fréchette will surround himself with people who have such experience.

“I wish Mr Frechette the very best. We want him to succeed,” Mr. Page said. “It is a difficult job. If you do the job, you risk getting the government upset with the analysis of the office. If you do not do your job (e.g., avoid the tough files or prepare weak analysis) you risk the wrath of Members of Parliament, the media and Canadians.”

Kevin Milligan, an economics professor with the University of British Columbia, said appointments at the Congressional Budget Office in Washington show that effective leadership doesn’t necessarily have to come from government insiders.

Mr. Milligan said he’s pleased to see that Mr. Fréchette has an economic background and is not a partisan appointment.

“I’m going to be looking forward to reading the reports and making my judgments then,” he said. “It seems the criticisms that I’ve seen of his appointment have been more that they expect him to be a bit boring. And among economists, if we rule out those who are boring, that would rule out too many of us.”

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