The Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is warning political parties that it won’t be able to cost out all of their platform pledges if there is a snap election this year.
The 2019 federal election campaign was the first one conducted under new rules that give the PBO a role in costing campaign promises upon request from political parties. The process gave voters an independent assessment of the likely cost or savings that could result from implementation, and received generally favourable reviews from policy experts.
The PBO is a non-partisan office of public servants who work on behalf of members of Parliament, rather than the government. It specializes in providing costing estimates and projections related to government spending and revenue. The office had expressed reservations in 2017 when Parliament approved the changes giving it a role in political campaigns.
The challenge this year is that if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau requests an election, it will be out of sync with legal rules centred on a fixed election date every four years, on the third Monday in October. A campaign must be at least 36 days and no longer than 50 days.
Under a fixed election cycle, parties can start working with the PBO as soon as 120 days before the fixed election date. But in a snap election scenario, the PBO is only legally allowed to receive costing requests from political parties on day one of a campaign.
That means that rather than having the summer to research proposals, PBO officials will be under pressure to quickly turn around a flood of requests. It also means parties may not have access to the PBO’s independent costing should they wish to announce specific measures in the first week or two of the campaign.
Jason Jacques, the PBO’s chief financial officer and director-general, said in an interview that the office is expecting a “deluge” of spending requests from political parties on the first day of a campaign, should one be called this year.
“We’re simply not going to be in a position to cost everything at this point,” he said, adding that the PBO has told parties they will need to prioritize their requests. Mr. Jacques said the PBO will, however, be able to once again provide an updated “baseline” forecast on the state of federal finances that all party platforms can use as a common starting point.
The PBO only publishes its costing reports with the approval of the requesting party. The policy is meant to give parties the flexibility of requesting a costing analysis and then choosing to abandon the idea. During the 2019 campaign, the Conservative Party and the NDP generally released the accompanying PBO costing report on the same day that a pledge was announced. In contrast, the Liberals chose not to release the PBO reports until the full platform was revealed.
Spokespersons for the Conservatives and the NDP both questioned the need for an election. The Conservatives said Tuesday that their eventual platform will be fully costed, while the NDP stated that it will work with the PBO to the extent of their capacity. The Liberal Party also said it will work with the PBO on an eventual platform.
Carleton University associate professor Jennifer Robson, who teaches public policy analysis and co-authored a paper on the PBO’s campaign costing work for the Canadian Tax Journal, said the PBO’s role brings Canada in line with countries such as Australia, Ireland and the Netherlands, which have similar independent campaign costing.
“The bottom line here is that it’s providing a common foundation to basically verify the fiscal plans of each of the competing parties, and it makes it easier for voters to compare commitments,” she said. “Hypothetically it should encourage parties to have more thoughtful platforms.”
From a practical point of view, Prof. Robson said the shortened timeline may lead parties to save their more complicated announcements for later in the campaign when the PBO costing is ready.
University of British Columbia economics professor Kevin Milligan said the PBO’s independent costing provides a valuable public service.
“I think it worked extraordinarily well in that all parties participated in the process and the PBO did, on the whole, a very good job,” said Prof. Milligan, who returned to academia in May after nearly one year as a special advisor on economic recovery matters with the federal public service. “I think it really improved the quality of the discourse around the election.”
He said the rules should be changed to address the fact that minority Parliaments often do not last the full four years until the fixed election date.
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