Getting the PBO right

The lessons of the Kevin Page era

When it comes to independent agencies and offices of Parliament and government, the Harper Conservatives have exhibited a striking degree of suspicion and animosity. Even when it comes, as with the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), with one they created.

The path from naïve opposition to hard-bitten governing is a well-traveled one. Promising more accountability during their first election win in 2006, the Conservatives are neither the first nor the last political party or government to adjust their spots or change their tune from one side of Mr. Speaker to the other.

The case of the PBO is instructive. Unavoidably and perhaps inevitably, it became a lightning rod for controversy almost immediately upon its creation in 2008. Now, delay in nominating a successor to its first and only incumbent, Kevin Page, is leading to questions about its survivability.

Its mandate is clear and concise enough. Set out in the Parliament of Canada Act, the PBO is to provide “independent analysis to the Senate and to the House of Commons about the state of the nation’s finances, the estimates of the government and trends in the national economy.”

Simple enough. So, why did it not work out as conceived?

Five key reasons jump to mind.

A minority Parliament should have been our first clue. Institutions fostered in the heat of that kind of political combat will inevitably be affected by its tone (mostly contentious) and its viewpoint (mostly short-term). The government strived to limit and control PBO’s focus and output while the opposition sought to expand and unleash it. Instead of agreeing on what it was meant to do for Parliament as a whole over time, each sought to shape the new PBO in its own immediate interest.

Second, location, location, location. Attaching the PBO to the Library of Parliament rather than the institution itself as in the case of the Auditor-General, helped lead us to where we are today. This was meant to give it an adjunct, research role rather than the classical, independent officer of Parliament. The latter model would have been better. Instead, both government and the opposition became confused and conflicted about its purpose as work began.

Third, it victimized itself. The PBO deliberately sought a high media profile for its work. The reasons for doing so were not invalid if it was to gain attention for its findings. But, as its media profile grew in tandem with the quality and quantity of its output, competing views on the PBO hardened. As the government doubled-down on its own openness, the PBO’s image as an objective, informed critic of the government intensified, creating more media attention in turn. The messenger unfortunately became the message.

Fourth, it didn’t stick to its knitting. The PBO was perceived to have strayed from the more narrow financial accountability role into a broader policy advisory role. This may not have been its intention. But, in their own accountability role, the opposition and media could not but seize upon hints and allegations about alternative policy options and opinions in the PBO’s work. The expectation that it would act on a more responsive basis to MPs, rather than carve out proactive territory causing MPs and ministers to respond to it, was upended.

Finally, it alienated potential allies. The PBO discomfited ministers. That is to be expected. But it also discomfited the bureaucracy, by challenging their accuracy and, by extension, their veracity. Unsurprisingly, they pushed back, leaving the PBO without any real champions in the system. The constituency to use its work within government shrunk as the opportunity to cite its work became increasingly politicized.

Fundamentally, the PBO is meant to serve parliamentarians as a whole, not operate solely in a direct ‘challenge role’ to government. That role is for the opposition as they perform their accountability function. The PBO should be the ammunition, so to speak, but not the weapon.

As the government contemplates who is to be the next Parliamentary Budget Officer, there is a risk in losing sight of the deeper underlying problem afflicting Parliament: the virtual inability of our elected representatives to perform an essential role of Parliament and hold the government’s spending and finances to account. This is what the PBO was meant to address and, frankly, has had some success in doing.

At its core then, this is an issue about how to reform Parliament and our democratic process. Having created a PBO, Parliament led by the government, now needs to make it work.

The PBO story has put the government in a bind. Eliminating the PBO would be a stunning and debilitating stain to the Conservative Party’s accountability brand. Few voters take to the barricades when government offices are cut to save money. But when voters feel there is something more pernicious going on, that it is the government’s comfort rather than the citizens’ needs being addressed, they pay very close attention.

In many ways, given all that’s occurred, following through on its election promise and creating a PBO was an admirable act by a novice Conservative government. Five years later, getting the PBO right would be an equally admirable return to its accountability roots by that government—as uncomfortable as that might prove.

David McLaughlin has been deputy minister to the New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy, chief of staff to the federal minister of finance, and president and CEO of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

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