Do we need a PBO?

Donald Savoie on how to fix Parliament

While reporting this piece on Kevin Page and the future of the PBO, I spoke with Donald Savoie, the scholar and author of various books on governance in Canada. Our conversation didn’t really make it into the piece (there are probably 100,000 words to be written about the office of the parliamentary budget officer and the nature of parliamentary democracy and governance, but we only had room for about 1,300 in the magazine), so here is a condensed and edited transcript.

I know you have a general concern about the proliferation of officers of parliament. I read the passage that you have on Kevin Page’s term in your latest book. Do you think he conducted himself poorly in that job?

First of all, I didn’t think we needed an officer of parliament to review the budget. We already had, depending on how you count, 11, 12 or 13 [officers of parliament]. We’re now up to 13 or 14. Adding another one, I thought, was not the right way: a) because it’s very costly, b) it generates a lot of bureaucratic work, paper-shuffling, in Ottawa … So I have a problem with setting up another officer of parliament. But in the case of the office of the parliamentary budget officer, that office, rather than help Parliament do its job, rather than help the opposition understand the estimates, rather than help all members of Parliament understand the budget process, rather than do some specific studies on behalf of Parliament and MPs, what it did was cater to the media. You can argue, and rightly so, that it probably helped the media do its job, but it didn’t help Parliament to do its job. In fact, a number of MPs on both sides, not just the Tories, not just the government side, including Carolyn Bennett, had some issues that he kind of went native and took off with his own set of priorities and decided to play to the media and not Parliament. It should have been the other way around. That’s my main criticism of that office.

Is that just in the sense that he was such a public persona? Was that in the things he chose to study? 

I think he attached a lot of importance to having a public persona. I think he attached a lot of importance to speaking to the media rather than speak to Parliament and MPs. I mean, do you know the name of the Congressional Budget Officer in the United States, who has a much larger mandate because Congress plays a much larger role in shaping the budget? You don’t know the name of the budget officer of Congress, I don’t, he plays to Congress, he doesn’t play to the media … So the persona, he chose the issues to give persona, but he played to media, not to Parliament.

Page has raised this issue himself, that the House of Commons doesn’t have the ability to hold the power of the purse, doesn’t have the ability to hold the government to account, that the estimates process is too complicated. I think he’s referred to it as a playing field where the executive has all the information and Parliament doesn’t have any. Do you put any stock in there being a parliamentary budget officer or do you think that the stuff that the parliamentary budget officer does should be done by somebody else?

The first point is absolutely right, it’s not a level playing field and Parliament has lost its way. Its lost its way mainly in holding the government to account, lost its way mainly in the budget process and the estimates, because that’s one of Parliament’s major functions. The solution is not to create an officer of Parliament and for Parliament to give him the steering wheel and say, okay, now you drive. That’s not the solution. The solution is to fix Parliament. So you fix Parliament how? Well, you fix Parliament through political parties. I would have much preferred to beef up political parties, the policy and research capacity of political parties, than creating yet another officer of Parliament.

Is it just that setting up another officer of Parliament seems purer than giving more resources to the leader of the opposition or the third party? Does it make everyone feel better to have an officer there than to do it your way?

It doesn’t make me feel any better because it speaks to the level of cynicism. We don’t trust the people that we elect to Parliament. We don’t trust the leader of the opposition to do sound policy work. And that cynicism inhibits political parties to do their proper work. And so, because of that, if you’re in the opposition, you say, well, doesn’t it make sense to create another officer of Parliament? Which is what the Tories did. They were in opposition. I don’t think they would come to the same conclusion now. But it speaks to the level of cynicism. We don’t trust political parties. We don’t trust MPs. We don’t trust the leader of the opposition. They’re too partisan, they’re too un-pure. I don’t think an officer of Parliament is any purer. He’s a bureaucrat and accountable to no one. Accountable to God and maybe the media. Whereas the leader of the opposition and the MPs are accountable to us.

Do you think there was anything redeeming about the Kevin Page era?

Well, you would have to start with the premise it was a good idea to set up the parliamentary budget officer and I don’t start with that premise. I wouldn’t have created that office.

Do you see anything positive in him setting what he’s described as an institute of fiscal studies at the University of Ottawa that would deal with public policy and better informing the political debate?

Well, we don’t have a shortage of policy institutes in Canada. We have an oversupply of them, actually. And we’re not going to fix our democratic institutions by setting up more research institutes. We’re going to fix our democratic institutions by fixing the institutions themselves. I would much prefer to invest in Parliament and the work of MPs. There’s a new group, Samara, I have much more faith that they will help our parliamentary institutions than yet another research institute.

So your argument would be that there should be more resources with political parties. Would you extend that to more independence for committees and more independence for individual MPs?

Absolutely. And forcing political parties, not to give the steering wheel over to the officers of Parliament and say, you drive, forcing Parliament, MPs and political parties to do some serious policy work. And that’s what political parties ought to be doing. And so if they’re accountable to us, officers of Parliament and research institutes of one kind or another are accountable to no one.

Talking to Page, his argument is we need more information, we need more data points, we need to have debates informed by data, information and analysis that we can look at the options and then debate them on a ground of data. Is it just a matter of where that should all be coming from? Is it just a matter of whether or not that’s coming from a PBO or whether that’s coming from parliamentarians?

I think we do that by opening up the work of Treasury Board and Finance, make it much more transparent. And then forcing the hands of Parliament, MPs, parties to do that work. You tell Parliament, MPs and political parties, heal thyself before you heal anybody else. That’s what we’ve got to fix.

I’m not sure I entirely share the general concern about Mr. Page’s public persona during his time as the parliamentary budget officer. There is an argument to be made that the next PBO might handle himself differently, but I’m also tempted to argue that other officers of Parliament should be more open in explaining themselves and their work. In our interview last March, Mr. Page addressed the general concern about his profile.

In a follow-up email I asked Mr. Savoie whether we might aspire to have both a parliamentary budget officer and a Parliament that is empowered in its own right and he agreed. The debate then becomes about how the PBO should function within that context. I tend to think we do need a PBO, especially until we have created that kind of Parliament, though hoping that the existence of a PBO isn’t seen as a solution.

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