Kevin Page: the unlikely enforcer

Meet the PM’s nemesis

The unlikely enforcer

Hockey isn’t an obvious decorating theme for a unit of the federal bureaucracy devoted to the non-contact pursuits of economic forecasting and spending analysis. But propped on a windowsill in the office of Kevin Page—the parliamentary budget officer whose reports have repeatedly clashed with the Conservative government’s—is a photo from the movie Slapshot. It’s Paul Newman by a locker-room blackboard, on which the chalk scrawl promises, “We supply everything but guts.” In another photo, Page himself, not a Slapshot extra, displays an ugly blackened bulge where he took a puck beneath his right eye a couple of seasons ago.

He clearly sees himself captaining a scrappy, underdog team. There’s something to that: since Page was appointed the first federal PBO in 2008, his upstart shop of just 13 bureaucrats has taken on the role of an expansion franchise, up against established powerhouses like the Department of Finance and the Prime Minister’s Office, which traditionally dominate the flow of government economic numbers. Page has elbowed his way into their league by releasing contentious studies on, for instance, the cost of the Afghanistan war and, especially, the likely persistence of budget deficits.

More deficit analysis has Page back in the news again this week. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty projects the deficit will plunge from more than $50 billion this year to just $11.2 billion in 2013-14, after which restraining some federal spending growth would be enough to bring back balanced books. Page’s staff counters that by 2013-14, the deficit would be about $19 billion, and stay high unless the government takes dramatic steps to slash spending, raise taxes or cancel planned tax cuts. “I’m not saying it’s wrong to cut taxes,” Page says. “But we’ve cut them pretty deeply, and we’ve still got corporate taxes to come down.”

The ongoing battle between Flaherty and Page over Ottawa’s true fiscal situation can make it look like the Finance Department presents the Tory numbers and the PBO offers the opposition take on the data. Given that his official mandate is to provide non-partisan analysis to Parliament, Page might be expected to bristle at that description. But he doesn’t. “The executive is well taken care of,” he says, referring to cabinet’s access to high-level private briefings from squads of government economists. “The question is how you close the gap for other parliamentarians.”

Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shut down the House and Senate until a planned March 3 Throne Speech and March 4 budget, those parliamentarians aren’t officially at work just now. But Page isn’t letting Harper’s proroguing of Parliament silence him. He plans to release a string of hot-topic reports, starting with this week’s on the state of the deficit. It’s more than a matter of duelling data. By challenging Flaherty’s version of fiscal reality, Page raises doubts about the Conservatives’ core message, as Harper prepares to reboot for a spring House session built around touting his economic management.

This can’t be what the Prime Minister had in mind when he created the PBO as part of the accountability push his party ran on in 2006 and set in motion after winning power. Much of that early promise of more open government has fizzled. Page stands out as a rare example of change in the direction of shining new light into Ottawa’s murkier corners. He’s made an impact even though the Tories gave his office less autonomy than key advocates of its creation had hoped. He’s publicly battled attempts to curb his independence and restrict his budget—and won, at least temporarily. He shrugs at the notion that he’s made himself a nuisance. “If it doesn’t work out,” he says, “I’ll find another job.”

Page’s publicly combative style has taken many insiders by surprise. After all, before this post, he spent 27 years as a strictly behind-the-scenes economist. He was an unthreatening figure to top-level Tories. He even worked closely with Harper as a key economic policy assistant in 2006 and 2007. Page describes his role then as involving detailed conversations to make sure the Prime Minister personally signed off on “everything with a price tag on it” before the government’s first two budgets.

But Page’s formative public-service experiences came much earlier. He joined the Finance Department after earning an economics M.A. at Queen’s University in 1981. That year’s recession, combined with double-digit inflation and unemployment, marked the start of a troubling era in Ottawa. Page counts himself among a coterie of bureaucrats who learned the hard way what happens when the economic fundamentals are allowed to get out of whack. They had to implement the tough restraint policies imposed by Jean Chrétien’s Liberals in the mid-1990s to break the deficit habit. “It was a very painful period,” he recalls. “Cutting transfers to the provinces for health and education. Departments being cut 15 to 20 per cent.”

These days Page sees signs of Ottawa sliding back into a pattern of spilling red ink year after year. The Tories have cut taxes without curbing spending, and an aging population looms. “This problem is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger,” he says. Some highly credible observers agree. Scott Clark rose to the Finance pinnacle as the department’s powerful deputy minister from 1997 to 2000. Now retired, he says if the PBO had been created in his day, his reaction would have been, “Why do I need this grief?” As an outsider, though, he views Page as an essential candid voice. Bureaucrats reporting directly to Flaherty or Harper might have trouble conveying the same cautionary message so bluntly. “When you’re advising ministers,” Clark said, “they just don’t want to hear it from you.”

The image of the discreet, polished mandarin whispering advice in the ear of a politician hardly fits Page. He grew up in a blue-collar, sports-loving family in Thunder Bay, Ont. In an interview, he alluded frequently to his roots there. He went away first to British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University on a golf scholarship, then to Queen’s. Settling down in Ottawa, he coached hockey and baseball as he and his wife raised three children. They now have a son and a daughter in university; another son died tragically in an accident three years ago.

Although it’s his deficit warning that’s now making waves, Page says his office’s work costing out specific policies and programs will prove at least as important. During last fall’s federal election he released a report that the Afghanistan war will cost up to $18 billion—far higher than the government had suggested. Currently his spending experts are working out the cost of Tory legislation aimed at keeping convicted criminals locked up longer, for a report that could be made public as early as late next month.

Page says he’s also debating with his hand-picked senior staff about whether they might be able to calculate the real economic impact of the government’s two-year, $47-billion stimulus program. “Is it working?” he says. “It’s frustrating when the government puts out no numbers.” Even while the MPs he’s mandated to serve sit out their unexpected mid-season suspension, that frustration is driving Page to stay in the game.

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