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THE LUNCH

Kevin Page: Bean-counter with a backbone Add to ...

Kevin Page is relieved to be sitting down, tucking into a hearty meal of barley soup, smoked mackerel and roast potatoes.

It's Friday, and the end of a big week for Parliament's budget watchdog. His office has just released a politically explosive report showing the cost of buying new F-35 fighter jets is likely to be nearly twice as high as the government claims.

A quiet lunch at the trendy Arc Hotel in downtown Ottawa offers a reprieve from long days at the office, drafts and redrafts, a televised news conference, briefings with MPs, and blistering criticism from the Harper government. Mr. Page is tired, but it's the contented sort of fatigue that comes with knowing he's doing his job – making sure Canadians are getting an unvarnished view of where their hard-earned tax dollars are going.

“For watchdogs, you don't want puppies,” says Mr. Page, 53, the country's first Parliamentary Budget Officer. He isn't smiling.

In politically charged Ottawa, information is power. Numbers can topple governments, undercut opponents and further agendas. And Parliament is hungry for his work – on everything from the cost of the Afghan war and prisons to infrastructure spending and the deficit. He has elbowed his way to relevancy by challenging Ottawa's traditional centres of financial power – the Prime Minister's Office, the Finance Department and the Privy Council. And Mr. Page has done it in unlikely style. In a town better-known for secrecy, spin and backroom deals, he's all about transparency and candour.

On the eve of a federal election that saw a great deal of attention paid to accountability, political leaders are keenly aware that whichever party forms a government will be the focus of Mr. Page's unforgiving glare. His determination, hardened by the tragic accidental death of one of his sons nearly five years ago, drives him to do meaningful work, regardless of career implications.

“I don't look at job security the same way I did when I was younger,” he explained. “I have no money. I live in a bungalow and I ride my bike to work. I lost a 20-year-old son. There is no security, so what are you fighting for?”

The Thunder Bay-born economist's reports on the F-35s and the government's deficit projections have become frequent talking points in the federal election campaign.

“If you're going to spend billions on prisons or military procurement, Canadians want to know if you've done your homework up front,” Mr. Page said in an interview before the federal election campaign began. “It's the role of the PBO to say ‘Hey, wait a minute.' “

With the possibility of a Conservative majority, Mr. Page's challenge now is to ensure the PBO lives on as an effective watchdog, even after he's gone. His current five-year term expires in 2013.

Harper's Conservatives pushed for the PBO's creation as part of its vaunted Accountability Act. Armed with a majority, they could just as easily dismantle the office, curb its powers or trim its funding.

Mr. Page's response is to be a pest to entrenched power, pushing the bounds of his mandate and making sure he's playing to an audience far beyond sight of the Peace Tower.

“You can't be invisible when you're trying to establish something,” he said. “We need to show our value.”

That brand of openness isn't what everyone had in mind. Early on, both the government and the opposition were anxious to control the timing, publication and content of his work, often for partisan gain. Many MPs pushed him to devote more time to costing out the plethora of private members' bills that rarely become law.

Mr. Page saw all this as an attempt to marginalize the work of his office and muzzle his staff. The pressure and frustration nearly prompted him to quit.

Instead, he pushed back, insisting on more, rather than less, independence.

Shining a spotlight on the often bewildering budget process is what keeps his small team of a dozen economists and financial analysts motivated, he explained in an interview, just days before the election began.

“When I first took this job the biggest worry I had was the perception of being partisan, and I thought the best way to prevent that was to be completely open and transparent,” said Mr. Page, who's spent nearly three decades steadily rising through the ranks of a half-dozen federal departments, including Finance and PCO.

And for now, at least, he's prevailed. He largely sets his own agenda. His reports, methodologies and investigation timetable are there for all to see. And he's readily available to answer questions from MPs, parliamentary committees and the government.

Three years into a five-year term, Mr. Page doesn't have to prove himself any more. His reports are widely anticipated, and read, both inside and outside government. He has gained the grudging admiration of MPs.

His fledgling office's modest operation – a 12-strong “band of brothers,” as he likes to call them, and modest $2.8-million budget – pales next to the vast resources of the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (250 people and $45-million). But the PBO model is attracting interest from governments in Europe and Asia, who are looking at setting up similar budgetary watchdogs.

The PBO has also developed a new Web-based expenditure model that will allow Parliament and the public to track what government departments are spending on a monthly basis. Right now, that kind of information is only available once a year.

Mr. Page guides his team with a modest but powerful principle: make sure nothing they do is useless.

“To be useful, you have to spend time on the stuff that really matters to parliamentarians, and Canadians,” he said.

“Doing a lot of work that doesn't go anywhere is a bit soul-destroying. It saps your energy. I don't mind doing the work in this job.”

Too much of the economic work produced inside government winds up in meaningless PowerPoint presentations, for internal consumption, and are then discarded and forgotten, he said. If it's not going to be published for all Canadians to see, Mr. Page refuses to do the work.

The willingness to stand up to authority is rooted in Mr. Page's small-town upbringing. The son of ambitious first-generation Polish and Ukrainian parents, he's always had a bit of the underdog in him. First as a smaller kid fighting for the puck on backyard rinks and then as a fan of the hard-luck 1970s Chicago Blackhawks. Success was equally tough, playing on a small-town hockey team battling much larger hockey programs in Manitoba or Minnesota.

“If you didn't come back from Duluth or Winnipeg with a trophy, you felt cheated,” he said.

__________

CURRICULUM VITAE

Kevin Page

Early Life:

* Born November 21, 1957 in Thunder Bay.

* Played competitive hockey through Midget.

* Learned how to play golf on a “cow pasture” course and later went on to play at Simon Fraser University.

Education:

* Masters degree in economics from Queen's University.

* Honours BA in economics from Lakehead and Simon Fraser universities.

Family and leisure:

* Married for 30 years to wife, Julie, a self-employed bookkeeper. They have three children, Jesse, 22, Chelsey, 19, and Tyler, who died in an accident at age 20 in 2006.

* Runs, cross-country skis, and bikes 20 kilometres to work (in the warmer months).

* Recently quit his adult hockey team because too many people were going around him and teammates wouldn’t give him the puck on power plays. “Those are the leading indicators. Maybe it’s time to quit.”

Career:

* Appointed Canada's first Parliamentary Budget Officer, March 25, 2008.

* Spent 27 years in the federal public service, working at Finance, Treasury Board, Privy Council, Fisheries and Oceans, Agriculture and Agri-Foods and Human Resources and Social Development Canada.

Sage advice:

Losing a son “taught us to squeeze as much out of life as possible. We have come to realize the hard way that we took too much for granted.”

Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

 

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