By: Kevin Page
Published on Mon Apr 01 2013
My name is Kevin Page. I was your parliamentary budget officer for the past five years. I am Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer. It was an extraordinary opportunity. It was a job nobody wanted, including me. It was the best five years of my public service career. It may have saved my life.
I am an extraordinarily average but fortunate person. I have been happily married for 31 years to a woman I love. I raised three great children. I live in a bungalow in the suburbs of Ottawa, where I have many true friends. I am a hockey and baseball coach. I ride my bike to work. I add and subtract for a living. You get the picture.
On March 25, my wife Julia and I went to my office to pack things up and put an end to five years as your parliamentary budget officer. My wife says life is full of circles. This felt like one. About 35 years earlier we left Thunder Bay to head to Queen’s University to get an education. As always, uncertainty and opportunity lie ahead.
Sometimes personal and professional lives collide. On Sept. 9, 2006, I was working at the Privy Council Office as the assistant secretary of macroeconomic policy. I was a senior public servant working for the Conservative government. Very early on that Saturday morning I got a call from the Perth, Ont., police and hospital that our 20-year-old son Tyler had died in a tragic accident. The loss was horrific. Our lives changed.
In Bob Dylan’s song “Things Have Changed,” he sings, “the human mind can only stand so much . . . the next 60 seconds could be like an eternity . . . I used to care, but things have changed.” I stopped caring about job security. We buried a son. As Dylan goes on to sing, “I’m out of range.”
The Conservatives had developed the proposal for creating an independent budget authority when they were in opposition. They wanted help with forecasts on the economic and fiscal planning environment; help with costing new programs; and help with scrutiny of departmental appropriations.
The proposal became a reality with the passage of the Accountability Act in December 2006. However, reality got watered down. The Conservative party was now in power. Under the legislation, the position was appointed by, and works at pleasure of, the prime minister. This is a problem. There is no role for Parliament in the appointment. The position is located in the Library of Parliament. This is a problem. The independence of analysis could be threatened by administrative back office manoeuvres. It was. Ironically, the proverbial box that was ticked off was a large legislative mandate.
Nobody wanted to be a legislative budget officer under these conditions. Do the job — give Parliament and Canadians information they have never seen before — and face the wrath of the executive, and it will be the end of your public service career. Don’t do the job — say nice things about the government — and you will face the wrath of the media and Canadians. I took the job when it was agreed that a few amazing and fearless public servants would join — namely, Mostafa Askari and Sahir Khan. We signed in proverbial blood. We vowed to give Canada a true legislative budget office. Nothing less. I chose career suicide. It was a very small price to pay. After all, I had lost a son; I was “out of range.”
Our institutions of accountability are in trouble. Parliament does not get the information and analysis it needs to hold the executive (the prime minister and cabinet) to account. This is true on departmental spending plans. One year after the 2012 federal budget, which launched a significant fiscal austerity exercise, parliamentarians still do not have departmental plans to show how restraint will be implemented and service levels managed. Notwithstanding, they are asked to vote on departmental authorities to spend your money. Parliamentarians almost never see financial-decision support analysis prepared by public servants. This was true on the tough-on-crime legislation, new military procurement as well as changes to the Canada Health Transfer and to Old Age Security .
We need to care. In a well-known book, Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson , the historical case is made that nations fail when political leaders consolidate power at the expense of citizens. Nations succeed, the authors argue, when political power is dispersed; when governments are held to account by legislatures; and when economic opportunities are widely available. Canada’s Parliament is losing its capacity to hold the government to account. There are negative implications for prosperity and democracy. I am sorry if I sound brash, but we need to wake up. There is a lot at stake.
The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) was an experiment. It was an experiment in fiscal transparency. Why not give all Members of Parliament access to decision-support type financial analysis so they can debate priorities and policy directions and hold the government to account? Why not restore the power of the purse to the House of Commons? Let the government govern, but let Members of Parliament do their fiduciary jobs under the Constitution and Financial Administration Act . With the PBO we could go back to the future, to our core Westminster parliamentary government roots.
The success of the PBO over the past five years can be seen on its website. Every paper and all correspondence are on the website . Hold me personally responsible and accountable. We wanted to be a 21st-century public sector organization — transparent, accountable, analytical and lean.
Under the leadership of Mostafa Askari and Chris Matier, the PBO prepared independent economic and fiscal projections with rigorous analysis on output gaps (where is the economy relative to its potential?), cyclically adjusted budget balances (how much of our deficits are cyclical or structural or natural?), long-term sustainability analysis (do we have a current fiscal structure in place that can stabilize debt relative to GDP in the face of aging demographics?). This analysis was not made available to parliamentarians and Canadians by the government or public service, nor were the calculations on the financial impact to recent changes in the Canada Health Transfer or age eligibility to Old Age Security. It was made available by the PBO. Dismantle the PBO and this analysis will disappear.
Under the leadership of Sahir Khan, parliamentarians and Canadians got to see analysis on costing government programs never seen before and was peer-reviewed by independent experts who volunteered their time (no expense to taxpayers). Imagine a costing of a war by independent and fearless public servants, or tough-on-crime legislation or military equipment or the cost of a federal public servant. Khan and his team did this. Imagine a database generated by data from the receiver general that tracks quarterly spending relative to authorities and program activities provided and made available to parliamentarians and Canadians. Khan and his team did this for $30,000.
The PBO is under threat. Interviews to find the next parliamentary budget officer have not started, despite the fact that my term has ended. The prime minister has appointed the parliamentary librarian as the interim parliamentary budget officer. The librarian is a nice person, but someone with no budget analysis experience. The weak legislation underpinning the PBO will not sustain the office. In a healthy democracy, analytical dissonance needs to be cherished and protected.
What’s in it for the government to have a strong legislative budget office? Not much. What’s in it for Parliament and Canadians to have a strong budget office? Maybe a great deal. If it matters to you, please tell your elected representatives.
I thank the prime minister for giving me this job. I thank my country. I thank the incredible PBO staff for giving their country the very best in public service. I thank my wife, children, family and friends. I thank former public servants for showing me the way. I thank my late son Tyler for giving me the courage to try. In the struggle, I found new meaning.
Kevin Page served as Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer from March 25, 2008, to March 22, 2013.