Replacing Kevin Page is shaping up to be a big headache for Ottawa, as Conservative hopes for a quieter Parliamentary Budget Officer will run up against the fact that few experienced people are expected to want the job.
When a hiring panel searched far and wide for candidates to head the new office in 2008, they literally could find no one other than Mr. Page. The panel was required under law to submit three candidates to the government, but after talking with hundreds of people and strongly urging about 10 to consider the job, they could find only one person who was both qualified and interested.
Don Drummond, one of five members of the 2008 hiring panel, expects the job hunt will be even harder this time, especially given that the PBO is currently involved in a court battle with federal departments over documents.
“I think it’s a critical decision,” said Mr. Drummond, a former senior official at Finance Canada who hired both Mr. Page and assistant PBO Mostafa Askari into the department in the early 1980s.
With Mr. Page’s five-year term due to expire on March 25, opposition parties are expressing strong concern over what the future holds for the PBO. On everything from crime bills, fighter jets and projected deficits, the PBO has provided a steady source of financial analysis that often challenges the Conservative government’s message.
But the office’s unusual structure – it operates as a section of the Library of Parliament – limits the government’s role in replacing Mr. Page. Under the Parliament of Canada Act, the candidate search is conducted independently of government by the Library of Parliament. A competition to select a head-hunting firm closes this week, and the library will then choose a hiring panel to interview candidates.
In addition to Mr. Drummond, the 2008 panel included Maria Barados, then the president of the Public Service Commission, former NDP MP Bill Knight, former senior public servant Allan Darling, and Bill Young, then head of the Library of Parliament.
Conservatives speaking on background say there’s no sign the government want structural changes to the PBO. The plan at the moment, they say, is to let the library’s hiring process play out. A common sentiment from Conservatives is that they would like the next head of the PBO to be more like the auditor-general: someone who makes a splash in the news from time to time when releasing a report, but isn’t heard from in between. Mr. Page’s numerous reports and comments in the media are a major irritant for the government.
This debate blew up in 2009, when Mr. Young made an unprecedented appeal to MPs and senators to rein in Mr. Page after the PBO released a costing of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan during the 2008 election campaign.
Mr. Young said the timing of the PBO report – which both the government and opposition demanded be released during the campaign – violated established Parliamentary protocols and called “into question the non-partisan status both of the PBO and, in my view, the library as a whole.”
It was a line of attack that infuriated NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who at the time was his party’s finance critic. Mr. Mulcair said the PBO’s work on the cost of new F-35 fighter jets proved the office’s value as a counter to government talking points.
“It takes a very experienced machete to hack your way through that sort of b.s.,” he said in an interview. “We’re really quite concerned that the office itself will be allowed to die on the vine.”
Another complicating factor is that the PBO is a small, tight-knit group with specialized skills. In an interview, Mr. Page said important decisions about the PBO’s direction are made collectively.
“There’s a lot of connections with people in the group that are professional in nature,” he said. “I think perhaps we’re almost closer. It’s like college friends now.”
Mr. Page has put forward three potential candidates from inside the PBO who could replace him: The two assistant PBOs, Mr. Askari, 63, and Sahir Khan, 43, as well as Chris Matier, 42, the PBO’s senior director of economic and fiscal analysis and forecasting.
Mr. Askari met Mr. Page around 1980 when Mr. Askari was teaching a class at Queen’s University and Mr. Page was his teaching assistant. Mr. Page and Mr. Khan worked closely together at Treasury Board Secretariat in the mid-2000s, where they developed a new system for departments to track spending in more detail.
Mr. Page’s recommendation is seen by some as the kiss of death for the trio, but bringing in someone new carries its own risks.
Professor Ian Lee of Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business says it’s unlikely the government will accept Mr. Page’s recommendations, even though the three PBO staff are highly skilled. Mr. Lee said a new leader with a different vision for the office could prompt an exodus.
“He’s got some human capital in there that’s awesome,” he said of Mr. Page. “The fear that I have, of course, is that these people who are brought there and recruited by Kevin will leave.”