Former PBO members call for tighter controls on campaign money messaging

‘Canadian taxpayers deserve nothing less,’ Sahir Khan says

Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page speaks to journalists after testifying at the Commons finance committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 26, 2012. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page speaks to journalists after testifying at the Commons finance committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 26, 2012. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

OTTAWA — The Liberals and NDP have been locked in a tit-for-tat war of words over their spending promises, whether it be how much the former would spend on First Nations education or the finer details of the latter’s fiscal plan.

Some accusations say various numbers are misleading, or even outright lies; others suggest that promised revenues are overly generous, or that spending promises are too small to meet their stated goals.

It’s enough to baffle any voter trying to make a difficult decision in a narrow, three-way race.

However, all those attacks and counter-attacks could evaporate in a moment if either party has a chance to follow through on a pledge to give more teeth to the parliamentary budget officer.

Those extra teeth would give the parliamentary budget officer the mandate to evaluate the costing of each party’s platforms, removing some of the partisan spin that muddies the water during an election campaign.

An additional proposed measure to open up government spending would level the playing field even further, eliminating a political advantage for the incumbent party, which knows the fine details of government finances.

Gone would be the days where an opposition party takes power, only to later claim that the outgoing party booby-trapped the books.

Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page said all those rules combined would give Canadians a chance to see the numbers clearly, but also know exactly how parties and governments plan to operate if financial forecasts turn out horribly wrong — or beyond expectations.

Sahir Khan, a former assistant parliamentary budget officer, described the promises as a political “game-changer for more open and transparent government.”

    The Liberals have said they want to bulk up the parliamentary spending watchdog, including having the PBO review campaign spending promises.

    In a speech last month, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair promised to bring in broader rules that would require the government to be more transparent in its financial forecasting and spending reports.

    Such a move would require the federal government to operate like a publicly traded company, requiring a financial; forecast at the start of each fiscal quarter, allowing Canadians to measure that performance at the end of it.

    Currently, federal finance officials keep their internal forecasts secret.

    Canadian taxpayers would then be able to measure the impact of government spending cuts in areas like employment insurance payments and veterans’ benefits, issues that the parliamentary budget officer has found difficult to determine in the absence of data from departments.

    Page, who now teaches at the University of Ottawa, said he has his students try to track spending on a program over years through federal budget and spending documents. In the end, he said, “most of them get completely lost. They cannot follow the money.”

    Countries like the U.K. and Australia have similar rules that make it more difficult for the government to hide lapsed spending, surpluses and the effect of budget cuts on services. A 2014 analysis by Khan and Page showed fiscal talk moved to more medium- and long-term measures — debt as a percentage of the economy, for instance — that economists argue are more important than whether the government is running a small deficit or surplus.

    Canadians would get a clearer idea if the government can sustain its spending on programs without either raising taxes, taking on debt, or cutting spending elsewhere. Quarterly spending and forecasts would make it difficult to hide bad economic news _ because the forecasts would show growth or contraction — moving debate to how best to keep the economy moving, and less about balancing the books.

    “We found that stakeholders broadly expressed confidence in the objectivity and authoritativeness of their new approach,” Khan said.

    “Canadian taxpayers deserve nothing less.”

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