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The Globe and Mail

A sad farewell to the parliamentary budget officer

Illustration by Anthony Jenkins

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, has announced that he will not seek reappointment in 2013. This will end an experiment in "transparency and accountability" that was doomed from the beginning. Since its creation, the PBO has been in a constant battle with the federal government over his independence, inadequate budget and lack of staff.

This is ironic, given that it was the Conservatives who promoted an independent PBO during the 2006 election campaign. But after two years, no one should be surprised, given the Harper government's dislike of independent research and opposing opinion. When it confronts disagreement with its preconceived views, and facts that don't support these views, its modus operandi is simply to get rid of the source of disagreement and to ignore the facts

This was not always the case. Liberal and Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s wanted their public servants to provide their best advice, regardless of whether they disagreed with the government; they wanted policy options costed; and, they were even willing to defend research in public. There was no need for a PBO. Regrettably, evidenced-based policy decisions are becoming increasingly scarce and this is unlikely to change soon.

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Since 2008, the Parliamentary Budget Office has prepared five economic and fiscal updates and more than 20 research reports. It has also provided assessments of cost estimates of policy initiatives proposed in legislation. Mr. Page has appeared before both House and Senate committees on eight occasions in three years, more than most deputy ministers, let alone ministers. He has done all this with a staff of only 11 and a budget of only $2.8-million. Currently, he has a staff of nine. Mr. Page has publicly defended the Parliamentary Budget Office research and policy conclusions, something that has no doubt made him very unpopular with the government.

Even the PBO's small budget was at risk. The government planned to cut it to $1.8-million for 2009-2010 after the publication of the Afghan costing report and the office's first economic and fiscal assessment. The budget was restored only after Mr. Page submitted an "action plan" in response to recommendations made by the joint House and Senate committee on the parliamentary library. Some of these recommendations actually reduce PBO transparency and independence.

How does this compare with other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development? In a 2007 OECD survey of its 30 members and eight non-OECD countries, 16 reported that they had "a specialized budget research office/unit attached to the legislature to conduct analyses of the budget."

The largest one is the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, which has a budget of $45-million (U.S.) and employs about 250 professionals. From its very beginning, the CBO has expanded its functions far from what was originally envisaged to become a non-partisan, independent, objective, analytical agency.

A strengthened and more independent Parliamentary Budget Office would promote greater understanding of complex budget issues; it would force the government to defend its economic and budget forecasts; it would promote a straightforward and more understandable and open budget process; it would promote accountability by commenting on the government's projections and analysis; finally, by being non-partisan, it would provide research to all political parties. This would be especially important with minority governments, which seem to be likely in the foreseeable future.

The position of the PBO was created in the Federal Accountability Act of 2006, but the office was not established until March, 2008. It wasn't easy to find someone to take the job when the government was watering down its commitment to an independent PBO. It won't be any easier this time around unless his independence is strengthened. At a minimum, the PBO should be appointed by Parliament and dismissed by Parliament, not by the prime minister.

In the meantime, the PBO can be added to the growing list of "hard-to-fill" government positions, just behind chief statistician.

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C. Scott Clark served as associate deputy minister of finance (1994-1997) and deputy minister of finance (1997-2000). Peter DeVries was director of fiscal policy (1990-2005) at the Department of Finance.

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