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Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page holds a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008. (FRED CHARTRAND)
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page holds a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008. (FRED CHARTRAND)

Globe essay

The man who knows too much Add to ...

How many times have Liberal and Conservative governments offered plans to fight global warming? Have you ever seen a credible analysis of what any of those plans would cost - in lost jobs, in lost productivity, in carbon credits purchased or taxes raised?

You haven't. No government, and no opposition party, has seen fit to put a price on greenhouse-gas reduction. Instead, they go on about new technologies and green jobs.

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The Parliamentary Budget Office is ready and willing to cost the current Conservative plan to reduce emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels, not later than 2020. They could get started tomorrow. The problem is, there's no money. The PBO's whole budget for this fiscal year is only $2.8-million, and may well end up being a million dollars less.

Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, has done too good a job. He has repeatedly embarrassed growth and deficit predictions by the Minister of Finance, Jim Flaherty. He has exposed the true cost of the war in Afghanistan. He could, if he had the money, tell us what fighting climate change would do to the economy and the country's finances.

But Mr. Page has also deliberately violated his legislative mandate, and now he doesn't have a friend left in town, which has made him dangerously vulnerable to an angry bureaucracy and to his political masters.

The old order is threatened. The old order is fighting back. The Parliamentary Budget Office is in clear and present danger of being gutted.

BANISHED TO THE LIBRARY

Mr. Page is a career civil servant, but you'd never know it. Intense, frank, passionate, he is obsessed with making the new Parliamentary Budget Office something that completely changes the game in Ottawa, by independently judging the accuracy of government projections, and the economic consequences of legislation and policies.

"Why shouldn't we have the best budget office in the world?" he asked in an interview. "What's to stop us from being every bit as good as the Americans in five years?"

He sees the Parliamentary Budget Office, which has been in operation for a year and a half, as the Canadian equivalent of Washington's Congressional Budget Office, the powerful independent agency that, among its other duties, costs proposed legislation in the House of Representatives and the Senate. One reason the Obama administration is having so much trouble getting a health-care reform bill passed is that the CBO estimated that the initial proposal would increase the federal deficit by $1-trillion (U.S.) over 10 years, which gave even Democrats pause.

The CBO struggled in its early years to secure the independence it needed to build its current solid reputation for accuracy and objectivity. The PBO faces the same challenge, and the prognosis is grim.

In response to repeated low-balling by Liberal governments of projected revenues, opposition leader Stephen Harper promised to create an independent parliamentary budget authority to provide "truth in budgeting."

But once the Conservatives were in government, a fully independent CBO-style agency scrutinizing the government's fiscal forecasts suddenly seemed not to be such a good thing. So the Tories squirrelled the PBO away in the Library of Parliament and gave it barely enough money to do a bare-bones job.

Despite these limitations, the PBO began releasing reports that consistently and accurately refuted government projections.

First, the PBO declared that the real cost of the mission in Afghanistan had reached between $14-billion and $18-billion, more than twice as high as the government estimate. (It didn't help that the report landed in the midst of the 2008 federal election campaign.) Mr. Page then contradicted Mr. Flaherty's November, 2008, economic update, which predicted surpluses in the face of an accelerating recession.

Three months ago, he declared that the federal government now had a structural deficit that would not disappear once the recession ended, and that either spending would have to be cut or taxes raised if the budget was to be brought back into balance. Mr. Harper called either action "very dumb policy," but a number of independent economists sided with Mr. Page.

Regularly contradicting and embarrassing the government of the day doesn't win you many friends in Ottawa. But Mr. Page is also his own worst enemy. He refuses to acknowledge that, under the enabling legislation, he is subordinate to the parliamentary librarian, currently William Young. He refuses to distinguish between reports that his own office commissions, which can be made public, and reports commissioned by parliamentarians, which by legislation and convention should be kept confidential.

"I think Mr. Page went down to Washington and saw the Congressional Budget Office and thought, 'This is what we should be doing,' " Senator Sharon Carstairs of Manitoba said. "And maybe it is what he should be doing. But as parliamentarians, we are sworn to uphold the laws of Parliament. And this is not his legislative mandate."

Earlier this year, the speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate made the same complaint to Mr. Page, and a million dollars disappeared from his $2.8-million planned budget. Then a joint Senate-House committee co-chaired by Ms. Carstairs looked into the imbroglio. It recommended that the million dollars be returned, in exchange for Mr. Page subordinating himself to the parliamentary librarian and promising to keep reports commissioned by members of Parliament confidential.

Mr. Page submitted his response this week, which politely said: Get lost.

"You cannot do my job without transparency," he insists. "If I'm seen to be working confidentially, people are going to say 'You're working in a partisan fashion.' " As for subordinating himself to Mr. Young, he believes that would contradict the spirit of his mandate.

"Either you're independent or you're not independent," he insists. "Do you want library researchers, or do you want budget officers?"

DEFIANCE COULD PROVE SUIDICAL

But such defiance could prove suicidal. Unless somebody bends, the million dollars could be lost for good. In which case it might not be worth keeping the lights on.

The Parliamentary Budget Office has supporters. More than 130 economists from across Canada signed a letter this summer urging the government and Parliament to fund the office properly and to protect its independence, observing that "its short existence has a commendable record of success."

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, referring to the government's wishful economic thinking, promised last week that a government led by his party would "make the Parliamentary Budget Officer independent, so that we never have to go through this again."

And it must be said that the media have been a consistent defender of the office, for the obvious reason that its reports are (a) often newsworthy and (b) more reliable, thus far, than anything the government puts out.

"It would be a real tragedy," if the PBO were undermined and underfunded because of a jurisdictional dispute, Ms. Carstairs said. The parliamentary committee was prepared to compromise in the interests of all-party agreement. She suggested that Mr. Page should be prepared to do the same. The senator also noted that time is running out - if the 2009-10 budget for the office is to be revised, Parliament must approve the funding before the end of the year.

But hostility within the government and the bureaucracy, coupled with Mr. Page's own intransigence, could prove fatal to the PBO. The odds favour a slow strangulation of its budget. Eventually, Mr. Page will give up and go elsewhere. Someone more pliable will take his place, and the Parliament Budget Office will disappear from view, to the relief of many, not least the parliamentary librarian.

One point of view holds that the office should never have been created in the first place, that in our system of government it is Parliament itself that holds the executive to account and that independent agencies should be discouraged.

But then, that's the whole purpose of the PBO: to tell Parliament how much it should trust the word of the government.

The barons of England would have had no quarrel with Mr. Page at Runnymede in 1215.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

 

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