A chance to improve the Parliamentary Budget Officer

The House debates Thomas Mulcair’s proposal
Kevin Page, Parliamentary budget officer, appears at Commons finance committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, April 26, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The House is taking an hour this morning to debate Thomas Mulcair’s bill to amend the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s mandate. I asked Kevin Page about the bill in March.

Q: Tom Mulcair’s private member’s bill before the House to change the mandate for the PBO, do you think it goes far enough?

A: It would. It would go very far, in terms of correcting the problem that we’re experiencing right now. And I think what we’re seeing playing out right now is really just a problem of the legislation, which was not properly established. I was appointed by the Prime Minister, I work for this Prime Minister as a public servant. And I work at pleasure. Who really wants to work at pleasure? They would be more comfortable being dismissed by cause. And when you take a job and you’re appointed by a prime minister and you’re the watchdog of the finances of the prime minister’s government, at the get go, with the opposition, there’s not going to be trust. You can clean these things up and I think the private member’s bill starts to look at those issues.

So it would help and I think the issue of independence—I think there’s a lot of confusion about independence. For us, it’s not about being better or different, it’s really that we want people to know that this is our view. That’s why it’s so important for us, just like you, you put your name on your work, we put our names, individual authors, put their names on their work, people that peer review the papers put their names on their work. We want people to know this is our work and we want them to have a different data point. And so, within the library model, which is where we’re situated, that’s just not congruent. They need to provide confidential services to members of parliament who are looking at private member’s bills, policy development. Whereas I think in our model, people need to know that this is our work and so it’s very different business model. So I think the future’s not sustainable for us to be in a world where you have the parliamentary budget officer, I have this responsibility to the legislature for this mandate, but administratively I report through the librarian. So the librarian could say, you know, I don’t want you to have a website, I don’t want you to hire these people, I’m not signing off on that contract. And all of a sudden your independence is no longer there. And whereas I think for the five years, people have a strong sense that the work that we provided was our view, a PBO view. And that I would be held as responsible and I was also willing to be accountable for that work.

Q: Does it go far enough on the demand or the ability of the PBO to demand documentation from the government side?

A: There are different models in different countries that have much stronger access provisions. To me, it’s two things. There’s the force of legislation and the culture. If we don’t change the culture in this town right now, which is complete secrecy—nothing up on websites, sorry can’t talk to you—if we don’t change the culture to be more analytical, more open and transparent, we have a really big problem.

Stronger legislation helps. So if it’s clear that we’re operating within our sandbox, within the mandate and we ask for information, it should come. Over the last five years, we’ve used weak legislation, but we’ve done it in a very transparent way. So you know, Canadians know, members of parliament know, when we’re working on a project, I will write a letter to the deputy and it will say, we’re working on behalf of taxpayers, on behalf of these members of parliament, it’s within our mandate, here’s what we need to do our job. We’ll get a response back and that all gets posted on the website. So in the meantime, while we don’t have stronger legislation, we find the way to work in this environment is with complete transparency.

The Liberals, through a speech by Stephane Dion, say they will support Mr. Mulcair’s bill, but the government side, through a speech by Andrew Saxton, says it won’t support the bill on account of the additional costs it might impose—the Speaker has suggested it might require a royal recommendation—and because, in the government’s estimation, the current situation is apparently satisfactory. As a result, passing the bill at second reading would seem to require the support of a number of Conservative backbenchers.