Where does the Parliamentary Budget Officer go from here?

The Jean-Denis Frechette era begins

The first reference in the House of Commons to a “parliamentary budget office” was spoken on the afternoon of October 6, 2004, by the MP for Calgary Southwest, at the time the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

We also know that the government has been wildly inaccurate in its forecasts and spending projections over the past five or six years. In recent budgets the Liberals have lowballed surplus numbers by an average of $6.5 billion per year. In the U.S. they do not have this kind of debate. There is a congressional budget office. People there, like here, may disagree on fiscal policy, but they should not have to guess if the numbers they are using are accurate.

We believe that an independent, non-partisan parliamentary budget office should produce forecasts of revenues and spending which are universally available and accepted by all parties and experts of all stripes. Such a body would ensure that the government is genuinely accountable for taxpayers’ dollars and that we maintain fiscal discipline at the federal level.

Stephen Harper then moved an amendment to the Throne Speech that sought to establish such an office, but it would be another year and a half before he was prime minister and another two years before Mr. Harper’s government happily announced the appointment of Kevin Page—”a fine choice”—as “Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer.”

Five years later, it is certainly possible, as suggested here, that the second Parliamentary Budget Officer will be different than the first. A certain amount of difference was likely inevitable. Jean-Denis Frechette now has the opportunity and responsibility to conduct himself and his office as he thinks best. And he should be given every chance to sort out what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. (There are, I think, questions to ask about the membership of the selection committee, but I think it’s fair to divorce those from Mr. Frechette’s selection and let his work as the PBO stand on its own.)

Even if you believe Kevin Page to have been the ideal PBO and even if you now imagine Mr. Frechette to be planning to be the opposite of Kevin Page, it seems unlikely that the office will disappear entirely or easily. And barring an amendment to the Parliament of Canada Act, it will still be at the service of any MP who wishes to make use of it. No government can now eliminate the position without inviting criticism (and smart Conservatives might realize that eventually their side will be in opposition and then have a PBO might come in handy). And the Harper government’s rivals are now compelled to promise better. Given Thomas Mulcair’s private member’s bill, one has to assume that establishing the PBO as a fully independent office will be a campaign commitment for the NDP in 2015. The Liberals supported that bill and Justin Trudeau has said that “a Liberal government would make the Parliamentary Budget Officer truly independent of the government and answerable only to Parliament.”

(Mr. Harper’s legacy is somewhere here. If the PBO continues to exist, its creation will go on the Prime Minister’s permanent record. It would be a minor tragedy if that note in history should come to be qualified with his government’s general disinterest in seeing the office be as effective as it could be, but then Mr. Harper’s parliamentary legacy might ultimately depend on whether he has made it sufficiently advantageous for his opponents to capitalize on concerns like prorogation, omnibus legislation and the ability of the House to hold the government to account. If we should somehow end up with a better democracy for all this, we will forever be in Mr. Harper’s debt.)

It’s interesting to return to Mr. Harper’s original idea. His amendment called for “The creation of an independent parliamentary budget office to give regular advice on fiscal forecasts of the Government of Canada.” As to what a parliamentary budget office should exist to do, you can interpret these words fairly narrowly. But in his remarks, he referred, longingly, to the enlightened atmosphere of Washington, DC and, specifically, the existence of the Congressional Budget Office. Here is the cost estimates database of the CBO. For the current Congress, it has so far reviewed 20 bills that would have a revenue effect of $500,000 or more. Here is the CBO’s blog, which lists some of its recent reports. The CBO has a staff of about 235.

That seems like the sort of thing we should want to have. And it is still possible that we’ll end up with something like that.

“People there, like here, may disagree on fiscal policy,” Mr. Harper mused eight years ago, “but they should not have to guess if the numbers they are using are accurate.” That principle still holds. And I am inclined to think, whatever Mr. Frechette now does, that we are still somewhat, if even just a little bit, closer to that ideal than we were before the government announced its “fine choice” of Mr. Page in 2008.

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