Kevin Page is a former Parliamentary Budget Officer and Sahir Khan is a former assistant Parliamentary Budget Officer. They now lead the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa
Thanks to Parliament's recent passage of the 2017 Budget Implementation Act, the legislative footing of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) has been strengthened. The provisions around the independence of the work and the appointment, qualifications and tenure of the officer have been enhanced. In addition, the mandate for the PBO has been expanded to cost political party platforms. This is a significant change.
The Parliament of Canada Act (Section 79.21) now states that "the Parliamentary Budget Officer shall, at the request of an authorized representative or a member, estimate the financial cost of any election campaign proposal that the authorized representative's party or the member is considering making."
The appropriate time period for this work as specified in the Act is the 120th day before the date fixed for the next general election and ends the day before the election. The act outlines the management of relationships and the confidential exchange of information and release of PBO analysis (after a political party tables their platform initiatives).
Is this a good idea? Yes.
In our view, former prime minister Kim Campbell famously misspoke when she said "an election is not a time to discuss serious issues." We are all better off if political parties openly debate the policy benefits of new initiatives during an election campaign, and this is further enhanced if the treasury impact of those initiatives – for current and future taxpayers – has been examined by an independent PBO.
The new approach would help level the campaign playing field between incumbent governments and their opposition counterparts, as the incumbent would no longer have a monopoly on the resources for developing their platforms. With a more thorough costing of election promises, the governing party could move forward in a more strategic fashion to implement their agenda. Parliament would have already seen costing analysis of proposed initiatives, so their pencils would be sharp when the time came to scrutinize the budget bill. The public service would have worked with the PBO to ensure adequate information was provided for the platform costing, so their transition preparations would be further ahead.
Will this be easy? No.
Thomas Fuller, the late British writer, said "all things are difficult before they are easy." It was not easy setting up the first PBO in Canada in 2008. The government and public service of the day were not used to competing with a new PBO on transparency and analysis around the planning outlook and the costing of initiatives. The culture of secrecy around federal budgeting took a major hit. Similarly, it will not be easy setting up terms of reference with political parties on costing in a politically charged environment, and it will be a challenge to set up protocols with the public service to exchange information essential to allowing the PBO to undertake its work.
Is it doable? Yes.
The PBO has demonstrated its bona fides in providing authoritative, transparent and timely costing of initiatives. There is a wealth of talent and information within the public service that needs to be leveraged in a non-partisan and responsible manner. I (Kevin Page) remember working with Peter DeVries, the legendary director of fiscal policy at the Department of Finance. Mr. DeVries would maintain a stockpile of previous costed initiatives that did not see the light of day for any number of reasons. One could envisage a similar stockpile of costed initiatives developed by the PBO after a few election campaigns. We could also learn a thing from the Dutch and the Australian independent fiscal institutions who are already providing this function.
Are there risks to the independence and quality of work? Yes, there are always risks.
What if political parties do not like the analysis from the PBO or are not in a position to specify program details? What if political parties ask for unreasonable timelines for the PBO to undertake the work? If this happens, there is a good chance political parties will not be able to claim they have costing from the independent PBO in the next election. There may be a political price. As taxpayers, we are okay with this.
To quote a lyric from Bob Dylan, "you better start swimming, or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin'." Transparency should be inevitable in an informed and democratic society.