The Conservatives have placed a senior government official on the panel that will find Canada’s next parliamentary budget officer, a move that breaks with past practice and raises concern about the independence of the process.
Neither the names of the new selection panel – nor its size – are being released, but The Globe and Mail has learned there are six members, including a representative from the Privy Council Office. The PCO provides public service support – such as policy research and advice – to cabinet and the Prime Minister’s Office.
The 2008 selection panel that found outgoing PBO Kevin Page was made up of five individuals who were all in some way at arm’s length from the government.
The Parliamentary Budget Office was created as part of the Library of Parliament, meaning it is designed to help the legislative branch of MPs and senators hold the executive branch of cabinet ministers and public servants to account.
As Mr. Page’s term showed, the PBO’s mandate can often bring it into conflict with the executive, when it criticizes government spending plans or calls on departments to be more transparent about spending cuts.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who is supporting Mr. Page’s current Federal Court case against federal departments over transparency, criticized the government’s involvement.
“We are very concerned about the independence of this process. The Conservatives have not only abandoned the principle of an independent Parliamentary Budget Office but they have also abandoned all pretense of accountability,” he said in a statement to The Globe.
Late Thursday the government announced that Parliamentary Librarian Sonia L’Heureux will also serve as interim parliamentary budget officer until a replacement is chosen.
Mr. Page, who had offered to stay on until a replacement is found, expressed disagreement with the government's move.
“This is wrong,” he said in an e-mail. "The Parliamentary Librarian is a good person but has no training to be a legislative budget officer. There were excellent candidates for an interim position within PBO.”
Mr. Page’s last day will be March 25, when his five-year term expires. The submission deadline for applicants is April 2.
Mr. Page has noted that the 2013 federal budget is expected to be released soon and had urged the library to find a replacement in time for the budget.
Mr. Page, who has experience working at the PCO, expressed strong concern Thursday that the selection panel includes an official from that department, noting that the PCO supports the prime minister and cabinet, not Parliament.
“There is no logic to have a PCO person as part of the selection committee,” he said in an e-mail. “There should be no interference from [the PCO] until names are advanced to senior personnel for Governor-in-Council consideration.”
Treasury Board President Tony Clement declined to comment on the makeup of the selection panel.
“The Budget Officer of course is hired by the Chief Librarian,” he said. “I see nothing in there that offends the will of Parliament so as far as I’m concerned.”
An official with the Library of Parliament would not provide the names of the selection panel members.
“To respect the objectivity and integrity of the selection process, the names of the selection committee members will not be released until the selection committee has completed its work,” said Cynthia Cusinato.
Mr. Page’s term has often been controversial as senior ministers have responded tersely to criticism from the PBO. The opposition has been highly supportive of the position – which was created under Prime Minister Stephen Harper – for providing hard-to-obtain statistics and analysis of federal spending plans.
On Thursday the library posted a two-page notice of vacancy and two pages of selection criteria.
The documents say the library is looking for someone who has skills at achieving “consensus” on challenging files. The job description also warns potential candidates that it is a “highly stressful” position.