Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, is expressing strong objections to the Liberal government’s plans to rewrite the rules governing the spending watchdog.
Buried inside a controversial 308-page budget bill tabled Tuesday are changes to the Parliament of Canada Act that would make the PBO position an independent officer of Parliament, rather than a part of the Library of Parliament.
Mr. Page said that change and a few others are welcome. However, other sections are a cause of concern. He said the bill appears to take away the power of individual MPs to ask the PBO to provide cost estimates of various government initiatives.
Those types of requests, often from opposition MPs, have led to some of the PBO’s most high-profile reports over the years. For instance, it was in response to a request from two Liberal MPs – including Dominic LeBlanc, who is now in cabinet – that Mr. Page reported in 2011 that the then-Conservative government was dramatically underestimating the cost of purchasing 65 F-35 fighter jets.
“You cannot cost a fighter plane under this [new] legislation,” Mr. Page said in an interview Wednesday, a day after Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau released the changes as part of Bill C-44, the budget bill.
Such costing projects could conceivably still be launched on the PBO’s own initiative under the legislation, but the PBO would have to submit a detailed work plan to the Speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate. Mr. Page noted that those two offices have a history of opposing the PBO. Both Speakers successfully challenged Mr. Page and the PBO in Federal Court in 2013 in a battle over access to government documents.
“I would worry, under this legislation, based on all the interference we saw from various political actors and bureaucrats,” he said. “This legislation creates the facade of independence … but on the other hand it completely takes it away.”
Another section of the legislation states that political parties can ask the PBO during election campaigns to provide cost estimates for potential campaign promises. However, Mr. Page said MPs should review those provisions closely given the politically sensitive nature of such requests.
Mr. Page was appointed as the first PBO when the position was created in 2008. He held the position until 2013. He was replaced by Jean-Denis Fréchette, who is the current PBO.
While Mr. Fréchette spent most of his career with the Library of Parliament, Mr. Page held senior financial positions in government departments, where he worked on federal budgets.
Mr. Page said the legislation should be clearer on the type of qualifications and experience that should be expected of future budget officers.
Since leaving the PBO, Mr. Page and some former members of the PBO have established a similar organization at the University of Ottawa called the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy.
The current PBO has also expressed concern with the legislation.
Mostafa Askari, the current assistant PBO, told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday that the legislation raises concerns over the PBO’s independence.
Conservative and NDP MPs criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Question Period Wednesday, arguing the PBO changes hurt the ability of MPs to hold the government to account. They also said the changes should not have been included as part of a 308-page omnibus budget bill.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen accused Mr. Trudeau of contradicting his promises on parliamentary reform.
“This Prime Minister’s omnibus bill completely guts that independent strength of the PBO,” said Mr. Cullen. “Why is this Prime Minister gutting the power to hold him to account?”
Mr. Trudeau responded that the changes strengthen the independence of the PBO.
“We are proud to be following through on our commitment to strengthen the independence of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, to make him or her a full officer of Parliament accountable to the Speakers of the House and the Senate, and not to the librarian of Parliament,” he said.
Mark Kennedy, a spokesperson for Government House Leader Bardish Chagger, said the overriding intent of that section of the legislation is to provide greater independence to the PBO. Mr. Kennedy said the government will be open to amendments when the bill is studied in committee.