Gentlemen, please – no fighting in the Library!

Oops, too late.

From today’s Ottawa Citizen:

Canada’s new budget officer has been told he can’t release any report to MPs, senators and taxpayers without the approval of the parliamentary librarian.

William Young has reportedly laid down the law in a blunt letter to Kevin Page that severely restricts what the office staff can do and say. One official described the letter as “nasty,” falling short of requiring the office staff “to get the library’s permission to use the washrooms.”

The move comes as the budget office has finished its first assessment of Canada’s economy and fiscal situation. Mr. Page had intended to publicly release his report before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s economic update at the end of the month.

But Mr. Page says he will not let the squabble between his office and the library get in the way of the office’s “mandate” to get that report to MPs. He wouldn’t say whether he planned to first clear the report with Mr. Young, but said he would use “appropriate channels” to ensure he briefed Parliament before Mr. Flaherty delivered his update. […]

I believe this is what is known as an ‘impossible situation’. Honestly, though, as tempting as it is to make the William Young the villain of the piece — heck, he seems pretty determined to do that all by himself — this whole unseemly showdown in the stacks could have been neatly avoided had the legislation that created the Parliamentary Budget Office not been so badly botched by the very same parliamentarians that it was meant to serve. Now that it has blown up into a fullblown power struggle, however, the government is going to be left with no choice but to admit that maybe, just maybe, they made a critical error by failing to make the PBO a stand alone Officer of Parliament, and amend the much vaunted Federal Accountability Act to do so.

IThey can, however, pass some of the blame onto the House legislative committee that voted against a Bloc Quebecois amendment that would have put the PBO under the Office of the Auditor General instead of the Library of Parliament:

Mr. Benoît Sauvageau:
Mr. Chairman, if I’m not mistaken, the purpose is to make the library officer autonomous and independent. The purpose of this amendment is to create a budget director linked to the Office of the Auditor General rather than to the Library of Parliament.

If you consult the election platform of the Conservative Party of Canada, you’ll see, on page 11:

Ensuring truth in budgeting with a Parliamentary Budget Authority.

I’ll read the first paragraph very quickly:

In the spring of 2004, the Liberal government told Canadians that the 2003-04 surplus would be only $1.9 billion. In fact it was $9.1 billion. In 2004-05, the Liberals spent about $9 billion at the end of the year to reduce their surplus to only $1.6 billion.

With a great deal of rigour, they explained the necessity-and I remind you that this is on page 11 of the Conservative Party’s election platform, Stand Up for Canada-for an independent budgeting authority. The Conservatives were probably so busy that they forgot to include it. That’s why, so that they can keep one of their promises, we’re proposing that this independent budget auditor position be created, and, among other things, for the budget surpluses.

Despite his best efforts, Sauvageau – who, sadly, died in a car accident later that year – was unable to persuade his colleagues to support the change; instead, they allowed themselves to be reassured by senior government officials that “the best place to locate the parliamentary budget office would be in the Library of Parliament, which already provides that kind of analytical support to parliamentarians.” At least now we have a pretty good idea of who convinced the Conservatives to back down from the campaign commitment to create a fully independent budget officer — the Department of Finance; by coincidence, the very same department that would most often be subject to its scrutiny.

The Senate did make an effort to fix some of the more egregious flaws in the bill, passing dozens of amendments, including several related to the Parliamentary Budget Office — although none that would have made the office fully independent. But when the bill was sent back to the Commons for concurrence, the government rejected virtually every one of the changes that had been made.

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