Freedom beckons for Ottawa’s trained seals

NationalPost.com – FullComment/Canada
Mar 17, 2011.   Father Raymond J. de Souza

On Wednesday, a House of Commons committee held hearings on the Speaker’s ruling last week that the government is in contempt of Parliament for refusing to produce documents relating to the cost of its criminal justice agenda. Is this a real scandal or a petty dispute?

It’s real enough, as our tradition of responsible government requires the executive (cabinet) to be held accountable to Parliament. Indeed the ongoing, more serious scandal is not whether The Harper Government™ produced adequate documentation in this particular instance, but that Parliament rarely has the information it needs.

Contempt for Parliament is serious thing. The Speaker’s ruling, welcome though it was, is rather late to the game. For generations, Her Majesty’s Government — that’s the proper name for it, by the way, independent of who holds the premiership — has been treating Parliament with contempt.

A generation or two back, visiting the office of a freshman MP, I noted an unusual figurine on the shelf — a circus seal balancing a coloured ball.

“Ah, the trained seal,” the MP explained. “It was a gift from my friends in the Prime Minister’s Office. That’s what they call MPs over there.”

That’s going back several prime ministers now, but the sentiment no doubt endures.

Take, for example, the government’s Truth in Sentencing Act (TSA), which, among other things, mandates that time spent in prison before trial – i.e., when presumed innocent – be counted the same as time spent in prison after conviction. Obviously, such a law would have budgetary implications, but Parliament was kept in the dark about that.

“In the case of the TSA, parliamentarians were advised by the federal government during review of the draft legislation that estimated costs were a Cabinet confidence,” Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) Kevin Page testified a few weeks ago. “Estimated costs were revealed by the federal government only after the draft legislation became law and the estimate did not include disclosure with regards to methodology and key assumptions.”

The federal government, after the bill became law last year, estimated the cost of its crime bills at $2.7-billion over five years. The PBO estimate was almost twice that: at least $5-billion. Who’s right?

The Department of Public Safety refused to give the data necessary for proper costing to the Mr. Page’s office, and so accused him of making his figures up. True, he could only extrapolate from current year figures because he wasn’t given the government’s forecasting models, but whose fault is that?

Governments have a conflict of interest in accurately costing their own programs; the temptation to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs is perennial, no matter partisan affiliation. That’s why properly functioning parliaments have their own independent resources for this task — Washington’s Congressional Budget Office being the most famous.

It is to Stephen Harper’s great credit that he established the PBO after his election in 2006. Before that, MPs had to rely only on the figures provided by the Department of Finance: The same people who drafted the budget were asked to provide the data confirming its soundness. The PBO was an immense leap forward; but since then, the government has rather cooled toward it, likely all the more so after Kevin Page’s testimony yesterday at this week’s contempt hearings.

All of which shows how ingenious Mr. Page has been in maximizing his meagre resources. In a short few years, he has become a true hero in repairing the tattered fabric of our tradition of responsible government. Governments all prefer their watchdogs to be poodles rather than pit bulls, but the taxpayers of Canada should be grateful that Mr. Page has both bark and bite.

Mr. Page does not think of his office as a watchdog — that’s the role of Parliament itself. Yet with only “trained seals” barking, Canadians have long since lost confidence in Her Majesty’s Government being held to account in Parliament. The crusading (it’s not too strong a word, even for a fellow economist) Mr. Page is attempting to let the seals swim just a little more freely, with some independent information about the government agenda.

Paul Dewar, the NDP MP from Ottawa, has a private member’s bill that would establish the PBO as an officer of Parliament, akin to the auditor general. Currently, Mr. Page is an employee of the Library of Parliament, and serves at the pleasure of the cabinet. Even government backbenchers should back the bill, and in a minority House, the opposition should be determined that it gets through. It is high time that the trained seals learned some new tricks.

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