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Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page delivers his report on the cost of the Afghan mission at a news conference in Ottawa on Oct. 9, 2008. (CHRISTOPHER PIKE/Reuters)
Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page delivers his report on the cost of the Afghan mission at a news conference in Ottawa on Oct. 9, 2008. (CHRISTOPHER PIKE/Reuters)

Michael Warren

Why is Kevin Page left twisting in the wind? Add to ...

The truth. They can't handle the truth. That's why Kevin Page, Canada's parliamentary budget officer, is being muzzled and his role compromised by a joint Senate-Commons committee.

Mr. Page has been offered the $2.8-million budget he was promised more than a year ago. But the condition is that he no longer report on "the state of the nation's finances and trends in the national economy" directly to the House of Commons and the public.

The committee's report recommends that Mr. Page's knowledgeable, non-partisan views about our government finances be kept secret in the future "until the confidentiality is lifted" by the person or House committee that made the request. Since his appointment 15 months ago, all of Mr. Page's reports have been tabled in Parliament and posted on his website for everyone to see.

He has been a courageous force for financial openness and transparency. And yet there is a growing feeling that this report is a thinly veiled attempt to force Mr. Page out, and bury the PBO.

The position of parliamentary budget officer was created by the Harper government as part of his federal Accountability Act. Kevin Page was appointed by Stephen Harper with a mandate to ensure "truth" in government budgeting and expenditure proposals.

Why is Mr. Page being left to twist in the wind by the government, the opposition and much of the media? Is it because he has done his job too well and too publicly? His track record of economic and deficit forecasting has been outstanding. More accurate than the government, the opposition, the Bank of Canada, most private-sector economists and the media. And nobody likes to be wrong.

Mr. Page's first report was stonewalled for months by the Conservatives. It estimated the cost of Canada's role in the Afghanistan war at close to $18-billion - more than double the government estimate of just over $8-billion. When Finance Minister Jim Flaherty assured us last November that we could expect a small surplus this year and balanced budgets into the future, Mr. Page warned us that large deficits were coming.

When the government brought down its January budget, it promised that deficits would be held to $64-billon over two years. Mr. Page estimated the deficit would likely reach up to $105-billion over the next five years. Since then, Mr. Flaherty has been dubbed the Fifty Billion Dollar Man for his expected deficit in this fiscal year alone.

More recently, Mr. Page has been preoccupied with the review of his future role, budget and reporting relationship. If the committee's findings are implemented they could compromise the original intent of the office, and force Mr. Page (if he stays) to report in secret through the Parliamentary Library to MPs and their committees.

It is obvious why the government would like this office it created to be sidelined. It has been embarrassed repeatedly by Mr. Page's superior forecasting ability. And ministers don't like to be challenged on their financial assumptions.

While the Liberals supported the creation of the office, they have become complicit in the process to limit the PBO's future role. This despite Bob Rae's after-the-fact comment that Mr. Page should be encouraged, rather than attacked, by the government. The reality is that as the Liberals edge closer to power, they would also like to preserve the opportunity to tamper with the truth in budgeting and forecasting.

And what about the media? Why aren't they mounting a stronger defence of truth and transparency in Mr. Page's case? They call for it from governments almost daily.

When Mr. Page first started giving Parliament and the public a more accurate and objective picture of our government's finances, he was widely covered and supported. But now that his role and future are in doubt, he has received little more than token support from the national media. It seems Mr. Page and the office of the PBO is being left to the perils of Parliament.

In the end, Kevin Page has demonstrated a sad truth. We are not yet ready for real transparency and openness in the financial workings of the federal government. While it should be the norm, it has been treated as an embarrassing constraint by those who should be embracing it.

Michael Warren is chief executive of The Warren Group. He is a former Ontario deputy minister, TTC chief general manager and CEO of Canada Post.

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