The problem with involving the PBO in elections

Proposed new rules would compel the Parliamentary Budget Officer to provide non-partisan advice on election platforms. It’s an intriguing idea, riddled with traps
Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette waits to appear before the Commons infrastructure committee, Tuesday, February 21, 2017 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)
Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette
Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette waits to appear before the Commons infrastructure committee, Tuesday, February 21, 2017 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Yesterday, the Government of Canada tabled legislation to implement Budget 2017.  These Budget Implementation Acts (often 2 are needed for each federal budget) are omnibus bills that get fast-tracked through Parliament.  There are many, many things worth paying attention to in the government’s legislation: employment insurance special benefits and parental leave; tax changes; user fees. But so far, I think, The Economist Party has been really interested in the changes coming to the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO).

The PBO was mentioned once in the 2017 Budget, but only to remind us that planned changes had been announced in the Fall Economic Statement. That fall statement promised to give the PBO better resources, a renewed mandate and better access to government-held information. It also promised that, “[f]inally, as exists in other jurisdictions, the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s mandate will include costing of platform proposals at the request of political parties to ensure Canadians have a credible non-partisan way to assess a party’s fiscal plans.”

I said at the time that I thought a fall update was kind of strange venue to announce changes to bodies in Parliament, like the PBO and the Board of Internal Economy (the managing body over administrative matters in the House). The government could instead make changes in standalone legislation, allowing for far better consultation with other parties in the House. I expect that the government will argue that they have a mandate to push ahead on reforms, pointing out that they ran on a platform that promised to “add the costing of party platforms to the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s mandate” so that “Canadians will have a credible, non-partisan way to compare each party’s fiscal plans.”

MORE: Your complete guide to the 2017 Federal Budget

I’m not sure that, as written, the draft legislation will actually lead to that promised result.  Let me explain.

The draft legislation says that, beginning 120 days before the fixed date for a federal election (or earlier, if Parliament dissolves sooner than that), any member of parliament or the leader of a party can ask the PBO to cost a policy idea they are thinking of including in their platform.  All requests are treated as confidential. That’s more the way the Library of Parliament works, but not quite how the PBO has worked so far.

Here’s one issue: What counts as a political party? Is it only parties with the necessary number of elected MPs (currently 12) to have official party status in the House? Is it all parties with at least one MP?  The wording of the draft bill points towards “parties recognized by the House” but also recognizes independent MPs. On balance, I can live with this approach. Others may argue this isn’t quite the same as “each party’s fiscal plans.”

But let’s set semantics aside for a moment. Is it, in fact, as simple as ask and ye shall receive costing? No. While confidentiality makes sense, the details on timing don’t. Requests can be made to the PBO at any time—as little as one day before election day, in fact. A window up to 24 hours before voting day is absurd. Costing is work, and even with more resources, the PBO isn’t receiving unlimited resources or the ability to bend the space-time continuum.  So if your party actually wants answers, it had better ask early. Also, it seems to me that this set of rules would create an incentive for a party to clog the system with a LOT of requests on day one so that competing parties have more limited access to help.

First-come-first-served is not, by the way, how the PBO equivalents in the Netherlands or Australia seem to work on costing platforms. In both of those countries, there’s a universal due-date for all interested parties to get their work in and one shared deadline to make the costing public.  (That’s generally how we academics do our grading.  There’s good reason for that).

This draft legislation instead directs the PBO to publish the cost of a platform proposal “as soon as feasible” after giving the results to the party and only when the party has made the platform plank public. So once again, the incentives for parties are to confidentially ask for a lot of costing but then sit on announcing any of those planks so the PBO is overworked but also unable to publish anything on them. Am I being too cynical? Well, even if parties don’t deliberately gum up the works, variable timing on the release of the costing is a risk for campaign teams who need to plan what topics and key messages they want to focus on for each day of the election period. There’s bound to be some variation in how much time it takes to get different requests costed, and that unpredictability is likely to deter some party representatives from making use of this new PBO service. Again, in other countries, the call for requests is for your whole platform at once, by one common deadline with some certainty on when information will be made public. Your party can opt out, but it looks foolish if it’s the only one.

The draft legislation also recognizes that sometimes the PBO is going to have a hard time doing the platform costing unless they get internal information from the Government. For all the financial reporting by the Government of Canada, costing a platform commitment in a credible way often needs more information than what’s publicly available.  But the draft legislation doesn’t compel the Government to co-operate on such requests.  Instead, it gives Ministers discretion to direct their departments to co-operate—or not—after a request has been received. To be clear, the Minister won’t know what’s in the request, or who made it, and the Deputy Minister is supposed to take steps to protect the confidentiality of the requester. But there’s no mechanism in the draft legislation to let the PBO ask for a department’s cooperation until they are acting on a request during the prescribed pre-election period. Before your party asks, there’s no real way for it, or the PBO, to know the likelihood of getting Crown information to complete the costing.

On the one hand, Ministers have responsibilities to exercise the powers of the Crown. Someone needs to tell the department it’s okay to go ahead with a particular activity. On the other hand, Ministers are also elected members of a political party, with their own political objectives, including wining elections. Often (though not always) Ministers themselves might have a good idea of what’s going into their own party platform. So when a request comes from the PBO for their department’s help, they’ll likely have a back-channel way to check whether this is a friendly or opposition request. The draft legislation assumes that Ministers will be honourable and say Yes; But if they don’t, what’s the recourse? How would an MP, or voters, ever know? It might be useful opposition research for a governing party to make note of the volume, timing and location of otherwise confidential requests to departments from the PBO. It’s even better information if an opposition party complains in public that their platform item couldn’t be costed.

There’s also something here that doesn’t sit right for me with the Caretaker Convention. That’s the practice that demands a sitting government curtail their activity during the election period, since they shouldn’t count on being returned to office.  In that case, why let individual Ministers continue to decide, on a case by case basis, whether not not to greenlight a request from the PBO to help cost a competing party’s platform? There are surely other options that don’t violate the principle of ministerial responsibility. For example, Cabinet could collectively decide to instruct their deputy ministers to provide reasonable co-operation with platform costing requests, and could additionally make that decision public and official at the start of the pre-election period.

On matters that aren’t routine but are urgent and potentially controversial during the campaign period, the Caretaker Convention also expects governments to engage in consultation with Opposition parties. I can’t know for sure, but the text of this bill sure doesn’t look like something that was drafted after meaningful consultation with other parties in the House. In practice, that’s just not how governments (red or blue) usually draft their Budget Implementation Acts.

The PBO changes deserve more consideration and cross-party agreement than budget implementation legislation allows. I hope the government will give themselves, and Parliament, an opportunity to deal with the PBO changes in separate legislation. They made big amendments to their Budget Implementation Act in the fall. The sun didn’t stop rising. They can do it again.