Telling truth to power, and to all of us, too

A neutral watchdog provides reliable data on an important issue. Better shut him down.

This week’s question won’t be hard to answer: do you prefer reliable information about how your tax dollars are spent? Yes, I thought so. Then you need to know what Kevin Page has been up to and how his good work is under threat.

Kevin Page is Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer. His office was created by the Harper government, in fulfillment of a 2006 campaign promise. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives promised, in their platform, to “create an independent Parliamentary Budget Authority to provide objective analysis directly to Parliament about the state of the nation’s finances and trends in the national economy.” It would “require government departments and agencies to provide accurate, timely information” to this new entity. The goal of all this? “Truth in budgeting.”

In due time, the Conservatives delivered. Bill C-2 created an Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Page, a distinguished career civil servant, was given the job.

Then he set to work. You will already have heard about his first project. Page produced an independent estimate of the cost of Canada’s participation in the Afghanistan war. It was meticulous and rigorously transparent. The officials who did the work signed their name to it, which is unheard of in bureaucratic circles. The report landed with a hellacious thud seven days before the latest federal election, because it put the cost of the Afghanistan deployment at $18.1 billion, more than double the official figure.

There could hardly be a more inherently political act than to check the government’s sums on the cost of a war in the middle of a campaign. In fact, it was an opposition MP, Paul Dewar (NDP, Ottawa Centre), who asked Page to produce his report. But it’s a testament to Page’s conscientious work that nobody questioned his impartiality. He chose to answer a neutral question instead of the more loaded question Dewar put to him. He neither hurried nor delayed his work to meet somebody’s political agenda. He released it to government, opposition, reporters and, through his website, to all Canadians at the same time—precisely so Dewar, who asked for the information, wouldn’t be able to spring the information on the government later, at some advantageous moment. And Page’s report included a model for estimating the cost of future wars, an invaluable gift to future parliamentarians.

It was stellar work. The Conference of Defence Associations, a pro-military industry group, called the report “excellent and well-researched.” So why, less than a month later, is somebody trying to shut Page down?

That’s not clear. This much is: on Oct. 28, the Speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate, Peter Milliken and Noel Kinsella, delivered a letter in which they complained that Page has been too public and independent.

Milliken and Kinsella wrote to the librarian of Parliament, William R. Young, to remind him that Page’s office was set up as a unit within the Library of Parliament. “Nowhere in the legislation is the Officer referred to as independent of either Parliament or the Library.” So by traipsing around telling you and me how much our wars, budgets and other programs cost, Page is “exceeding” his mandate, the two Speakers write. In setting up Page’s office, Parliament “certainly” didn’t intend “to put the Officer at the centre of parliamentary or public debates or to impinge on parliamentarians’ constitutional function of overseeing the executive.”

This is asinine. You will not find a parliamentarian who says he felt his constitutional function was impinged when Page came up with the first reliable costing of Canada’s most important foreign-policy adventure. That’s because reliable information can only help parliamentarians. And of course Parliament intended to put Page at the centre of public debates. That’s why Peter Van Loan, who was then the government House leader, applauded Page’s appointment and said he would “provide independent analysis to Canadians on the state of the nation’s finances.”

Three days after Milliken and Kinsella sent their letter to Young, the librarian of Parliament sent his own letter to Page, which so far has not been released publicly. I’m told it reins Page in fiercely, requiring him to release his reports to Young instead of directly to all parliamentarians and the public.

“We have a major, major crisis,” somebody who works in Page’s office told me. “It’s obvious they’re trying to get [Page] to quit.”

Which leads to the obvious question: who’s “they”? Who wants to muzzle an ambitious and conscientious new watchdog who strolled right into a political minefield for his first assignment and came through with flying colours?

Of course my first hunch was that it’s Harper. Accountability always looks good until you’re the government being held accountable. But that doesn’t explain why Peter Milliken, a Liberal MP, would collaborate.

Hugh Segal is a Conservative senator. He fired off a sharply worded letter to Milliken and Kinsella for trying to rein Page in. He warned them against presuming to speak for parliamentarians—especially two weeks after an election, when Milliken hasn’t won re-election to the Speaker’s chair yet. Nor should they let Young treat this new watchdog as just another staffer.

Segal chalks this, plausibly, up to “bureaucratic angst”: Page is making noise and getting attention. He’s making others look bad. No matter: he must not have his wings clipped when he has barely begun to fly. Page is already at work producing an independent economic and fiscal update, so we can check his numbers against the ones Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will produce. This is precisely what an independent budget officer should be doing. Let him do it.