Kevin Page and the Afghanistan audit

How the PBO came to release a report in the middle of an election

<p>Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page speaks during an interview at his offices in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 9, 2010. Budget watchdog Kevin Page says he believes the federal deficit will come in below $40 billion this year.That&#8217;s at least $5 billion lower than Finance Minister Jim Flaherty had estimated for 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick</p>

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

One of the concerns raised by Philip Cross was the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s decision in the fall of 2008 to release, during that year’s election, an analysis of the costs of the war in Afghanistan. This has also come up in the comment thread under Paul’s column.

First, the context. Parliament was dissolved on September 7, 2008. Two days later, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the Parliamentary Budget Officer, who had been planning to release an analysis of the mission that fall (at the request of NDP MP Paul Dewar), would not do so.

After six years of sending troops to Afghanistan, Canadians will go to the polls Oct. 14 not knowing how much the war has cost them. That’s because parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, Canada’s newest spending watchdog, has decided not to release a preliminary report into the first full costing of the war since Canada sent soldiers to Afghanistan six years ago in the middle of an election campaign … Mr. Page had hoped to release a preliminary estimate when Parliament returned in September, but the election shelved those plans. There’s nothing to stop Mr. Page from releasing the study, other than concerns of interfering in the election and getting drawn into politics.

A week later, Global National pursued the question. Here is how that report began.

KEVIN NEWMAN: Well, the prime minister sought to re-assure Canadians today that Canada’s economy is on more sound footing. Banks are secure and the government claims its finances are in the black. But tonight in a “Global National” exclusive, we raise an important question that is getting almost no coverage in this campaign, how much…

JAMIE ORCHARD (Reporter): In the entire Afghanistan debate, right now, and what will be spent before the mission runs out in 2011. This small team of number crunchers has the answer to that question. They work for Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer, a new office created by the Tories to help tell Canadians what things cost. Their first job – tallying up the complete and true cost of the Afghan mission, and they’re almost ready, but the question – should it be released during an election campaign?

KEVIN PAGE (Parliamentary Budget Officer): At the minimum it would take an all-party agreement and probably we’d be setting a precedent for, in a kind of Canadian context for, you know, putting this report out.

In short order, the Liberal, NDP and Bloc leaders declared that the report should be made public. A day later, the Prime Minister added his agreement.

“We’re always willing to give content for any information that’s public. We put out detailed estimates every year of, of government expenditures so, of course, we’re willing to give our consent.”

Mr. Page then agreed that the report would be released as soon as it was ready and it was publicly released on October 9.

Mr. Page’s mandate was subsequently the subject of some gnashing of teeth. I can’t find the original source of the quote, but Cross says a former parliamentary librarian said the release of the report called into question the non-partisan status of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

For the sake of exploring this particular moment in this history of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, I asked Kevin Page about it: Do you regret releasing the Afghanistan report during the 2008 election?

He wrote back with the following, which I reprint in its entirety.

The decision to release the PBO report on the cost of Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan during the 2008 election period was one of the decisions in professional life when you say this is going to hurt either way, so what is the best thing to do.

What is often forgotten when people recount the story is that all political leaders in the 2008 election campaign said PBO should release the study.

Did I set up (or pressure) the agreement or go ahead signal from of all party leaders to release the PBO report by publicly saying I would “not” release the report without agreement from each party leader?

If I did so, it was inadvertent. We did not want to release the report for multiple reasons. It should also be noted that at the time the report was still in production phase for planned release after Parliament returned.

This set up a lose – lose (game theory) situation. Release the report during the election – risk being perceived as partisian. Do not release the report – risk being perceived as partisan (plus not transparent).

A few years ago there was a book I liked with the title “When Markets Collide”. This was a situation of “When Principles Collide” . In the end, with all party leaders saying release the report, we released the report based on the promotion of transparency for Canadians.

The report, of course, like all PBO reports is not political in nature. There are no critiques of political priorities or policies. In PBO reports there are methodologies, assumptions and range of estimates, all subject to peer review and then public release.

We released the report very similar to budget lock up process. No advanced copies for anyone. A lock up before release. One open briefing session only (then we were gone).

Were there important political issues that could flow from the report … that stem from financial analysis? Yes. What kind of military did we want after the war (much capital would be depreciated)? Did we set aside enough money to address death and disability for the young Canadians that served?

In retrospect, did we have this more political conversation. No, not really. There was a debate about transparency that would carry on.

The 2009 Joint Committee Report of the Library of Parliament included one recommendation that I supported. It was a protocol that stated that PBO should not release a report during an election period.

I have argued that the legislation undepinning PBO needs to be renewed – appointment, independence, mandate, transparency, and power of direct request. Under transparency, the issue of product release could be strengthened to promote both the principle of transparency (PBO releases all its reports to the public) with a clause that PBO does not issue reports during an election period.

On a separate issue (but related), one could also envisage a parliamentary debate about whether an independent fiscal institution should be asked to cost party platform commitments (the Australian model).

Do I have regrets? Yes and no.

I did not like the situation (is this a regret?) — the pressure of releasing a first (and also major) report of an independent fiscal institution during an election campaign with the pressure of having all party leaders saying to release the report

I was very proud of the quality of the work of the PBO report prepared by three extraordinary public servants and felt given the situation we did our very best to release the report in a professional and non-partisan way (no advanced copies; no political commentary; just the numbers).

In the end, I am accountable for the decision to release.