Wanted: reality checker

Will Canada lose its budget watchdog?

Kevin Page (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Kevin Page (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Mark Carney’s departure as governor of the Bank of Canada set off furious speculation about his successor. But there is another important economic job opening up in Ottawa, and it’s not getting nearly as much attention.

Next month, Kevin Page’s five-year stint as the first Parliamentary budget officer comes to an end. The Conservative government created the watchdog role to bolster accountability and transparency. Page’s office produces independent reports on government spending and economic trends, either at its own behest or at the request of any member of Parliament. With a tiny budget and staff, the office wrote blockbuster reports on the true cost of Canadian military operations in Afghanistan and the final price tag of a fleet of fighter jets the government wanted to purchase—and drastically undervalued. He frequently clashed with the government. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said last year his work was “unreliable and unbelievable,” even though Page’s reports consistently turned out to be more accurate than government projections.

Former TD chief economist Don Drummond served on the selection committee to find the first PBO. Nobody applied, and none of the individuals they tried to coax into applying did so—except Page, who’d previously worked at the Department of Finance, the Treasury Board, and the Privy Council Office. “This time around, it will be even more difficult,” Drummond says. Though Page has recommended three current PBO staffers, there are doubts the job will go to an insider. The role requires a unique mix of accounting and finance skills, as well as exposure to the inner workings of government. Because of the natural friction involved in acting as a check on the sitting government, potential applicants who hope to still have a public-service career afterward won’t take such a controversial job. (Page had no intention of working in the civil service again.) And for those nearing retirement, the limited pay and prestige simply might not be worth the trouble of constantly butting heads with the government.

$29.3 billion
Parliamentary budget officer’s estimate of the purchase and service costs for 65 F-35 fighter jets over 30 years. The government allocated $9 billion

A legislative change might do the trick. The PBO is not technically an independent office. Instead, it is an arm of the Library of Parliament. The PBO also serves at the pleasure of the prime minister, meaning he or she can be dismissed at any time without cause. Removing the PBO from the Library and making it truly independent would lend more security and prestige to the role. As a result, according to Carleton University professor Ian Lee, “The recruiters would be able to expand their talent pool very, very significantly.”

Page has argued for that change since Day 1. But the government appears to be moving in the other direction. Flaherty recently accused Page of “wandering off” from his mandate, and mused the PBO could evolve into a “sounding board” for the government. Page says that if the office isn’t made independent, it won’t exist in 10 years. “You won’t find somebody with the experience and knowledge willing to take the job,” he says. “And when the quality of the work gets to the point where it’s not really being useful, why have the office?”