Embattled Parliamentary Budget Office is worth saving
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials – Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page’s new fiscal institute will be a boon for Canada. But it can’t replace the embattled PBO.
Aug 06 2013. Editorial
You can stonewall him, ridicule him, even squeeze him out of office, but as Prime Minister Stephen Harper is finding out, there’s no easy way to get rid of Kevin Page. The former parliamentary budget officer, who became an unlikely hero through his efforts to hold the federal government to account on all matters accounting, is apparently not done yet. He announced last week, to fitting fanfare, that he is working to establish a new, PBO-like fiscal institute at the University of Ottawa.
As many opposition MPs have pointed out, that’s good news for fans of transparency. The PBO, under Page’s watch, exposed faulty government accounting of the costs of F-35 jets, the Afghan war andtough-on-crime legislation, among other fishy numbers buried in behemoth omnibus budgets or tucked away in dusty departmental planning reports. The office was so effective, in fact, that the government stopped cooperating with it, publicly dismissing Page as a partisan overstepping his mandate.
Not that things got better after Page’s five-year term ended. Four months later, the secretive and controversy-tainted process for choosing a new parliamentary budget officer continues. And in the meantime, the interim officer, Sonia L’Heureux, who is, bizarrely, also the parliamentary librarian, has encountered just as much, if not more, government recalcitrance. L’Heureux said last week that she is set to submit access to information requests to force withholding departments to hand over data they are mandated by law to provide. Evidently, Page’s purported partisanship was not the only problem.
The PBO clearly needs all the help it can get. In a time of ballooning budget bills and increasing executive power, Parliament seems ever less informed about the government’s fiscal plans. It’s from within that cloud that the Tories have been allowed to claim fiscal prudence while running up unprecedented budget deficits. Independent MP Brent Rathgeber, who quit the Conservative caucus last month, is right when he says “it’s critical that other institutions step up where Parliament is unable to.”
If it comes to fruition, Page’s new initiative will be a welcome complement to the PBO’s work. We can’t have too much data or analysis on the widely disputed costs of health care, for instance, or environmental policies. And in Canada, where think tanks are few, we don’t have nearly enough of it. But Page’s institute, however useful, cannot serve as a replacement for the defanged government watchdog.
Harper himself established the PBO in 2006 as part of the Accountability Act, installing Page as its first head two years later. The idea was to create, in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal, a public institution to monitor government spending and report on it to Parliament. Unlike any think tank or university, the PBO is funded only by the public, to serve only the public interest. And its unique powers to access information in a timely manner are enshrined in law, if not always respected by the government.
A private fiscal institute, led by someone with Page’s experience and talent, would be a boon for Canada. But it does not provide a solution to a larger problem: the slow dismantling of an office for transparency that our increasingly opaque prime minister once rightly saw as necessary.
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