Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page is a national hero
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion – If telling truth to power and insisting powerful governments tell the truth are heroic acts, then Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page is a national hero.
Feb 22 2013. By: Gary Corbett
When Kevin Page, Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer, steps down next month after five years on the job, he’ll do so with a respect and admiration accorded few professional public servants. Not because he went above and beyond the call of duty (many do), or because he has been particularly outspoken on public matters (many are, especially whistleblowers). But because, like most professionals in the public service, he doggedly maintains that government should tell the truth, even — especially — when it refuses to do so.
The Parliamentary Budget Office was created following the 2006 federal election, when the Harper government rose to power on the promise to make government more accountable in the wake of the sponsorship scandal. It has not been an easy ride — not for Page, not for the public service, and not for the people of Canada. Although the PBO should be independent — and Page has done his best to be an independent watchdog on public spending — he serves at the pleasure of the prime minister. In effect, he’s hired to watch over the spending of the person who hired him.
That in a nutshell is the problem, as events since Page’s hiring have shown. For starters, there’s the not-so-small matter of the government’s annual deficit ($56 billion in 2009-10), which the Conservatives forecast would rapidly decline without the need for either tax increases or service cuts, but which Page cautioned had become a structural deficit. The result? The government has announced $11 billion in annual cuts.
War — never an inexpensive proposition — is another example. The government said the Afghanistan mission would cost $8 billion. Page said it was nearer to $18.1 billion. Page was right.
And who can forget those F-35 jets? The government said they would cost $9 billion. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, after exposing some financial finagling that conveniently left out decades of maintenance costs, said they would cost $30 billion. Once again, Page was right.
Needless to say, none of these attempts to speak truth to power endeared Page to the prime minister who hired him, and who likely expected he would, if not toe the party line, at least not rock the ship of state.
But the real test of honesty and integrity has come with the implementation of the Harper government’s austerity cuts. Can’t afford to maintain Old Age Security benefits for 65-year-olds? Well, actually, yes we can, said Page.
Throughout the past year the government — whether Finance Minister Jim Flaherty or Treasury Board President Tony Clement — has insisted that the cuts will affect only “the back office.” Frontline services — presumably health, safety, and protection of the environment, things that matter to Canadians — won’t be touched.
Page’s assessment of the government’s own numbers has repeatedly thrown cold water on these claims. In return he has received the kind of chill the Conservatives reserve for their worst enemies. His requests for more information have gone unanswered or faced prolonged delay, his calculations have been dismissed out of hand or publicly called into question, his role and reputation as a watchdog has been attacked with an intensity usually reserved for environmentalists. Even taking the government to court to reveal details of the government’s proposed cuts and expenses has met mostly with a deafening silence.
But it’s not just the numbers, it’s what the numbers say — their consequences — that speaks to the value of Page’s contribution to current debates.
In November 2012, seven months after the government introduced its austerity budget, the PBO could still find specific information on only 500 of the 19,200 jobs to be eliminated (7,000 are supposed to be lost through attrition). How, for instance, will the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ensure compliance with federal regulations on food safety while crash dieting on $19 million in cuts to its Food Safety program? How will the $160 million cut from Aboriginal Affairs address the concerns of communities now responding to the Idle No More movement? How will Health Canada triage the enormous cuts to its own programs? The government waves these worries away with the easy phrase “operational efficiencies.”
Some things no longer exist simply because, to Conservatives if to no one else, they have ceased to matter. Science and the environment have come in for particular attention. The Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned freshwater research facility that has proved the effects of acid rain and been instrumental in developing environmental policy, is eliminated. Environment Canada labs dedicated to studying cancer-causing pollution emissions from smokestacks are shut down. The list goes on. Nor should anyone forget the loss of Statistics Canada’s long-form census to current and future knowledge. Evidence is the new enemy.
It says something about the times we live in that a government can be elected to power on the promise of greater accountability, appoint a watchdog to ensure that accountability, and then delay, debate and discredit that watchdog’s attempts to ensure accountability at every turn. But if Parliament and the people of Canada never learn the true cost to taxpayers and the country of the Harper government’s austerity cuts, it won’t be the fault or on the watch of Kevin Page. To his credit, Page has done what the job, not the party, demanded. And that should leave us worried about his replacement, if indeed a replacement is ever found. Unsurprisingly, the process is delayed.
George Orwell once wrote, “In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Kevin Page is not a revolutionary, but if telling truth to power and, more importantly, insisting powerful governments tell the truth to those who elect them are heroic acts, then Kevin Page is a national hero.
Kevin Page is a national hero.
Gary Corbett is president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
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