Another government, another attempt to undermine the budget watchdog

Posted on May 13, 2017 in Governance Delivery System – Opinion/Editorials – It’s probably too much to ask that governments feel sincere affection toward the Parliamentary Budget Office, but they should stop trying to subvert its vital work.
May 12, 2017.   By

It’s probably too much to ask that governments feel sincere affection toward the Parliamentary Budget Office, whose oversight and second-guessing of public spending plans is bound to irk the denizens of the Langevin Block. But it sure would be good for democracy if successive governments would stop trying to undermine its vital work.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for instance, has been an outspoken critic of a flaw in the PBO’s design that leaves it vulnerable to the whims of obscurantist governments. But so misguided is his proposed remedy, laid out in the recently tabled budget implementation bill, that one wonders if he truly wants to strengthen the office, as he says, or merely to undermine it in new and more creative ways. The test will be whether Trudeau listens to the critics, including the former and current parliamentary budget officers, and changes course.

Created in 2006 as part of Stephen Harper’s push for accountability in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal, the PBO proved to be a greater nuisance – and a bigger boon for the country – than the former prime minister likely ever imagined. The tumultuous tenure of Kevin Page, Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer, reflected both the position’s promise and its limitations.

Under Page’s leadership, the PBO exposed faulty government accounting of the costs of F-35 jets, the Afghan war and tough-on-crime legislation, among other wonky numbers buried in outsized omnibus bills or obscure departmental planning reports. So irritating proved the office and its leader that the Tories waged war on Page, denying him access to departmental records, denigrating him in Parliament and demonizing him in the media. He left after a single term.

As the Liberals pointed out at the time, this subversion should not have been possible. The key problem, as many transparency advocates have argued, is that the office falls incongruously under the purview of the Library of Parliament and its head serves at the pleasure of the prime minister. As Page wrote before leaving the post in 2013, “In watchdog parlance, I am appointed by the person who I am supposed to watch.” That clearly makes no sense.

The new legislation acknowledges as much by seeking to make the head of the PBO an independent officer of Parliament, like the auditor general or the privacy commissioner. That’s what critics, including the Star, have long called for.

If only it stopped there. Instead, as if to ensure the watchdog is not made too independent, the bill goes on, proposing a series of reforms that would limit the office’s access to information and eliminate important aspects of its mandate. As both Page and his successor, current PBO head Jean-Denis Fréchette, have argued, the bill would do more harm than good.

For instance, the proposed legislation would allow the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons a troublingly tight grip on the PBO’s purse strings, thus allowing government the option to subvert unwanted analyses. It would also require that the PBO provide a detailed annual work plan for approval, which would potentially limit its ability to respond to unexpected events.

As Fréchette wrote in a recent, scathing report, “Should Canada enter into a recession, be struck by a natural disaster or deploy its armed forces abroad, the PBO will be unable to provide [Parliament] with the timely analysis … [it] needs to hold the government to account,” unless, of course, the government generously and expeditiously grants permission. No other watchdog is so dependent on the cooperation of the watched.

The bill would also quietly remove the PBO’s one mechanism for forcing government departments to share information, without providing a new one. And it would strictly limit the kinds of analysis that the PBO or parliamentarians can initiate, barring, for instance, the sort of requests that led to the office’s bombshell reports on defence procurement.

It’s not too late to change this misguided suite of reforms. If the government truly wants a strengthened PBO, it can have it. But that’s a big “if.”

The Trudeau government has already felt the watchdog’s bite. In the days after the Liberals tabled their first budget, PBO analysts suggested the government’s growth projections were based on distorted data and that the finance department was suppressing research that would corroborate the claim. The government knows well the political risks of giving the PBO sharper teeth. Let’s hope it has the courage to do it anyway.

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