February 1, 2013
OTTAWA, ON, Feb. 1, 2013/ Troy Media/ – If there is one thing Ottawa pundits of all stripes agree on, it is the innate goodness of Kevin Page’s Parliamentary Budget Office. It is universally painted as the underdog David heroically standing up to the Goliath of the Harper government.
The creation of the PBO by the Harper government was well-intentioned: a neutral, independent source of advice on budget projections, after years of Liberal government understatement of their surpluses, modelled on the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office in the U.S.
After the Library of Parliament appointed Page to head the PBO in March 2008, relations between the PBO and the government quickly degenerated into endless quarrels over its mandate and its media profile, culminating in several lawsuits. The story is usually framed that the Harper government is to blame for this.
After reviewing the early days of the PBO, I would argue that Page’s tenure at the Privy Council Office in 2006 and 2007 lies at the heart of his fractious relationship with the government. In one interview, he described how his previous job was to get Prime Minister Stephen Harper to sign off on ‘everything with a price tag on it.’ Because he had worked so closely with the Conservative government, his appointment immediately raised questions about the new agency’s independence.
Independence of federal agencies is a tricky issue in Ottawa. Look at how the Bank of Canada (which nominally reports to the minister of finance) requires ‘the courage to take a stand’ in the qualifications for its new governor. Note the alacrity with which Mark Carney took up his pen to write an article in the National Post, lauding the contribution of former governor James Coyne in establishing the bank’s independence after the latter recently passed away. Of course, there is considerable irony in Carney trumpeting the importance of independence, since his moving directly to head the Liberal party – as had been rumoured – would have been a body blow to the bank’s perceived integrity. Already, some have questioned his motives in attacking the idea of Dutch disease, an issue raised by NDP leader Tomas Mulcair.
Having worked 36 years at Statistics Canada, an agency that prides itself on its independence, I have followed attentively the debates about the meaning of independence. The problem with Kevin Page and the PBO was that, to burnish their reputation for independence at their fledgling agency, they fell into the trap of reflexively taking the opposite side from the government on every issue. Page even alluded to this in an interview with Maclean’s, arguing that opposing the government’s projections was justified because ‘The executive is well taken care of. The question is how you close the gap for other parliamentarians.’
This is not demonstrating independence; this is a slavish devotion to an opposing position. Being independent means evaluating every situation on its merits, not the automatic gainsaying of any position the government takes, to paraphrase John Cleese. Page’s mandate was to help improve budget projections, not bolster the research capacity of the opposition.
The Bank of Canada demonstrates how an organization can be independent but still maintain a good working relationship with the government of the day. The job posting for the new governor emphasizes an inclination to ‘lead through persuasion.’ Conversely, the confrontational style and quick resort to court action reduced the credibility the PBO could have banked from being right about some important things, like the cost overrun for the F-35 jets.
Clearly, the relationship between the PBO and the government no longer serves the purpose either originally intended. Worse, the PBO risks earning a reputation for partisanship, not independence. The former head of the Library of Parliament criticized Page for releasing a report in the middle of the 2008 election campaign, saying the timing called ‘into question the non-partisan status of both the PBO’ and the library. Last week, the speakers of both chambers of Parliament said the PBO lawsuit about its mandate infringes on Parliament’s authority to set that mandate.
To break this logjam, his successor (if anyone can be found to drink from this poisoned chalice) should come from outside the PBO, since a bunker mentality of compulsive resistance appears too deeply ingrained in the PBO staff. True independence and integrity is demonstrated by the careful, considered and calibrated assessment of each new situation. It is time to start over with a clean slate at the PBO.
Philip Cross is research co-ordinator at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the former chief economic analyst at Statistics Canada. A version of this column first appeared in the National Post.
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