Stephen Harper's nemesis is out of a job

The Globe and Mail

Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page waits to testify before the Commons finance committee on Parliament Hill, April 26, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Kevin Page’s detractors call him a cowboy, but he’s actually been more of a burr under the Harper government’s saddle for the past five years. As the first Parliamentary Budget Officer—a position established by the Conservatives—he fought for transparency on big-ticket items such as the Afghanistan war, F-35 fighters and post-recession budget cuts. Having exposed Ottawa’s lapses as a fiscal manager, it was hardly a surprise that the 55-year-old economist was not reappointed to another term, and he left office near the end of March.

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Are you retiring from the public service?
It’s more like unemployment, but, yes, I am retiring. I’ve been a public servant for many years and there is no chip on my shoulder now. Colleagues told me that if I did this job, this is likely how it would play out.

What will you do now?
I’m meeting with universities and there is some interest. There’s a need for universities to get connected back to Parliament on big forward-looking issues, like how to get health care costs down or how to deal with the environment. These all have a big economic and fiscal impact.

Because you are so loathed by some people in Ottawa, will you now walk around in fake glasses and moustache?
I worked in all three central agencies—Finance, the Privy Council and the Treasury Board Secretariat. I know a lot of people in the town. It’s clear I rubbed some people the wrong way over the past five years. But my deputy-minister colleagues totally understand that it was the nature of the job. I’m sure I will end up golfing with almost all these people.

What kind of person should replace you?
You need knowledge, experience and a certain character. It seems like public-sector budgeting was developed to obfuscate and confuse. So you need someone who has worked in the budget environment. And there is the character side—the ability to say: “We are going to do this.”

Will they appoint someone with your independence?
You will know when you look at the new appointee’s CV. If it’s someone who has never worked in Ottawa before and who comes out saying, “we have to rethink the nature of the budget office,” then you’ll know the gig is changing.

Is there an ingrained government culture that breeds underestimating and overspending?
One thing you learn by studying economics is to understand incentives. If you’re a Department of National Defence official, you want to get the very best equipment for our people in the field, and you want to get it for the least amount of money. So there is a long history of military procurement where things turn out being a lot more expensive. Some of it is just typical defence price escalation, but it’s also officials saying, “Let’s get this [proposal] in at this price.”

What happens then?
You’re kind of half pregnant. You’re locked in and the costs will escalate. So you need someone like me who looks ugly, mean and nasty, and who comes in and says, “We ran the models, we talked with people in other armed forces and we think there is a low probability—at best—of getting what you think you will get for that money. You need to set aside more money.”

How did you get so good at being famous?
My friends and my wife laugh at this stuff. At 5 p.m., I’m still on the ice coaching 11-year-old boys. In the summer, I coach baseball for kids with disabilities. Nothing’s changed. When this office was created, they asked for independent analysis and I’ve had to speak for the analysis. I’ve heard people say,  “Page, you’re a cowboy.” I don’t buy that. I’m a bald-headed guy with glasses who lives in a bungalow in Barrhaven [an Ottawa suburb] and usually rides his bike to work. My staff has busted its gut to do competent work. If the work wasn’t competent, why would anyone talk to me? Why waste your time on a meathead who just does punditry?

Do you have a holiday planned after you leave?
No, but I’ve been visiting Golftown to look for deals. I probably still need a good solid fairway wood. I have been playing—at best—three to five times a year. Maybe that will change.