28 january 2013

Finance minister slams Parliamentary Officer


Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page said one needs magic to do his job.

Canada’s finance minister has called the Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page unbelievable, unreliable and incredible. And he renewed his criticism this past weekend. As part of his job, Mr. Page has brought to light the impact of recent budget cuts and the cost of a program to buy F-35 fighter jets. He has also gone to court to try to oblige government departments to provide details of their budget cuts. For more RCI’s Lynn Desjardins reached leading constitutional expert and Professor Emeritus of Queen’s University, Ned Franks.
The position of the Parliamentary Budget Officer was created in 2006. The role of the officer is to provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation’s finances and to estimate the cost of budgetary proposals. He is an independent officer of parliament much as is the auditor-general. The difference is that the A-G reports on spending after the fact, the PBO reports on projected spending.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty renewed his criticism of Mr. Page this last weekend accusing him of “wandering off” of his mandate and suggested the mandate should be reviewed.  Mr. Page responded to a query on the matter from the Globe saying “I think Parliament and Canadians benefit from a strong independent legislative budget office.”

As the Globe reports Mr. Page thinks he has “gotten under the skin of the government because of the ‘timeliness, relevancy and quality’ of the PBO’s work, not because he isn’t doing his job.”

Page “dead right” said constitutional expert

“I thought he had done a good job,” said Prof. Franks about Kevin Page’s performance. “I thought he was a very brave man to handle it the way he had. And I found that his reports on the whole were critical and perhaps even more critical than I had expected but I don’t think he was wrong in what he said. I think he was dead right on most of what he brought to the public’s attention.”

About the finance minister’s criticism, “I wish he hadn’t done it,” said Prof. Franks. “It’s just not in the general rule book that you make those sorts of noises about an officer of Parliament like the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Imagine if he’d said that about the Auditor-General. There would have been a hue and cry across the country.”

The reason there was no hue and cry in this case, believes Prof. Franks, is that the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is relatively new and untested and Mr. Page was the first person in the office.

“I think it’s a very important thing,” said Prof. Franks about the role of a Parliamentary Budget Officer in a democracy. He noted that the government is the biggest, single, economic force in the country. “How it spends money and the results it gets for the expenditures of money is a terribly important issue for Canada and so also is the decision process or lack of that coming up to the budget.”

What happens next? “That is a very good question,” said Prof. Franks. “I don’t know. With its majority in Parliament, the government can change the act (which created the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.) It can eliminate the position entirely. Or it can continue on… I’m not convinced that they would want to go through a fight in Parliament to get rid of the current Parliamentary Budget Officer but at this point it’s sort of a stand-off.”

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