UPDATED: Parliamentary Budget Office facing funding freeze? This sounds like a job for the Library of Parliament committee!

Oh, wait – at this precise moment, it doesn’t actually exist because someone – we’re not pointing fingers here – decided to prorogue Parliament a month and a half before he plans to bring it back to life with a wave of his magic wand Speech from the Throne.

Anyway, if there was a functioning Library of Parliament committee at the moment, it would be the perfect outlet to discuss just what can be done about this latest skirmish between Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page – who should probably be at least a little bit alarmed at the way that “embattled” seems to have been added to his title, which generally happens right before certain staffers start to be referred to as “loyalists” – and the Library of Parliament, as recounted by the inestimable Kathryn May in today’s Ottawa Citizen:

Canada’s new parliamentary budget officer, whose controversial reports on government spending have been at the centre of a political storm over his mandate, is facing a 33-per-cent reduction in his previously approved budget.

The budget office is housed in the Library of Parliament, which informed parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page that his funding would be frozen at its start-up level of $1.8 million and he won’t be getting the additional 33 per cent he was promised — for 2009-2010 –when the office was opened nearly nine months ago. […]

When creating the budget office, the government allocated $1.8 million for the first year to cover the costs of setting it up, to be followed with a full operating budget of $2.8 million in 2009-2010. The office now estimates it needs about $5 million a year to keep up with its work doing the financial analysis and advice demanded by MPs. The office, however, has been hampered in hiring full-time employees and has a staff of eight, four of whom have been temporarily borrowed from other departments. Mr. Page had hope to expand to about 15 people by next year.

One official said the freeze would cripple the office and effectively shut it down. Others, however, said all departments and agencies in government were facing cuts or marginal increases and Mr. Page’s office was not being targeted. […]

One of the unique perks of being an independent Officer of Parliament is that the budget for your office is decided by Parliament, not government, which – in theory – should protect you from having your funding slashed by a pique-fitting Prime Minister whose nose was disjointed by a recent report.

Unfortunately, as we are by this point all too well aware, as it currently stands, the Parliamentary Budget Officer is not independent – at least, not in the same way as, say, the Auditor General. He is an officer of the Library of Parliament, and it is the Parliamentary Librarian – not Parliament – who ultimately controls the budget of the Parliamentary Budget Office, and it’s very possible that typing that sentence may have turned me into Sir Humphrey Appleby – or possibly Sir Humpty Dumpty – on the spot.

But let us plunge onward into this looking-glass world, where the Library itself falls under the aegis of the Speakers of the House and Senate, who represent – as far as ITQ can tell – Page’s only avenue of appeal, at least officially. Unofficially, of course, he can count on the stalwart support of the opposition parties – which are already muttering darkly about how this is a “direct attack” on the PBO, and calling on the Prime Minister to rectify the situation, which, sadly, he really can’t do.  It’s not his call, and really, I’m not sure anyone wants to set a precedent of PMO intervening in internal House politics, since that would pretty much make a mockery of the whole notion of parliamentary democracy, and nobody wants that.

The Library of Parliament committee, on the other hand, could call both men – Page and Librarian William Young – to account for their respective actions, as well as the subsequent reactions and counter-reactions that have turned this into a power struggle, and will, presumably, do just that as soon as the House gets back to work next month, provided the second session makes it to its third week without the government falling or another pop prorogation or disgruntled mutant zombies running amok through Centre Block and yes, I totally added that to see if anyone was still reading. The PM, like everyone else, will just have to cross his fingers and hope that somehow, the committee can broker a parliamentary peace accord – or at least a non-aggression pact.

The Prime Minister does, of course, have another option: his government could bring in an amendment to the Federal Accountability Act and make the Parliamentary Budget Office truly independent, which would probably take all of three days to go from first reading to Royal Assent, and would resolve the problem on the spot, but for some reason, he just doesn’t seem to want to do that, possibly because it would mean acknowledging that his beloved FAA may not be perfect – and, worse yet, that two of his most currently non-loved political entities, the Senate and the Bloc Quebecois, were right to question how truly independent the PBO would be – and he was wrong not to listen to them.

Oh, and just by the by, what was the Parliamentary Budget Office in the midst of doing when this story broke yesterday? Why, putting out another report, of course – a briefing note on the budgetary balance and the economic cycle, despite “the absence of publicly available estimates”, or the economic and fiscal projections that they requested from Finance earlier this month.

UPDATE: The Bloc Quebecois has now chimed in on the PBO budget freeze:

The Bloc’s finance critic and MP for Saint-Maurice–Champlain, Jean-Yves Laforest, today denounced the cancellation of the budget increase the Conservatives had promised the Parliamentary Budget Office, a service charged with providing parliamentarians from every party with objective insight into the state of public finances.

“The Harper government did not want to recognize the reality of an economic crisis and it’s now attacking one of the resources available to parliamentarians in their analysis of federal finances. It is obvious that the Conservatives’ decision to undermine the budget of the Parliamentary Budget Office aims to prevent the Harper government from being confronted with its own incompetence, as they recently were with their false budgetary estimates,” said Jean-Yves Laforest. (translation courtesy of Colleague Gohier, AKA 1/2 of Deux Maudits Anglaise)

By our math, that puts the number of opposition parties in favour of an independent Parliamentary Budget Office at three for three. As noted in the comments, it’s been suggested to me that this would make an excellent bargaining chip for the opposition during the upcoming budget negotiations — and if all three of the parties are on side, so much the better.

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