The Backbencher ; Taking all of the mindless psychobabble that comes out of the House of Commons, and providing critical analysis on the important bits.
Now you may be asking yourselves, what exactly is a PBO and what does he do? Essentially, the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is designed to be a government watchdog on economic matters. The office operates independently from the government and its official mandate is to provide parliament with objective, expert and peer-reviewed economic analysis on estimates from the government and trends in the economy. In addition, it also offers cost estimation services to any member of either chamber for potential policy proposals.
That means that when the government releases estimates to spend a breezy $45 billion on fighter jets, the PBO checks to see to how the government has arrived at that number, whether it’s accurate, and what the greater impact will be on the country’s economic landscape.
But, here’s the catch. The PBO, unlike the Auditor General, which performs somewhat similar functions, is able to provide a second opinion before the money has even been spent. Meaning that reports are released early enough in the policy making process to make a tangible difference in debate. This arms all members of the house with valuable independent financial insight on the cost and economic consequences of the government’s policies which results in: further scrutiny and a more informed parliamentary debate. I know…shocking!
In its short existence, the PBO has had a profound effect on the balance between the executive and the legislative branches. For one, the opposition can receive a fresh, independent take on government figures, which are often tailored to suit the governing party’s liking. Additionally, the opposition parties who don’t have access to the mass army of economists and resources in the Canadian public service can, upon request, receive the PBO’s service on their own prospective bills.
Experiment Gone wrong…or Surprisingly right?
During his time as the PBO, Kevin Page, despite a small staff and measly budget, has established himself as quite the renegade figure in Ottawa. He has been tremendously outspoken in the media, and has cornered the government by producing numerous conflicting reports on government proposals, sometimes in a way that goes heavily against the grain. In 2008 his office released a report on the price of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. The timing of the release, alone during a federal election campaign, put the Hill into a frenzy (typically, all branches of the public service abide by a code of ‘radio’ silence during elections to avoid affecting the results). He even went to federal court to obtain documents that the government was unwilling to hand over concerning F-35s.
Ironically, the Conservatives have indicated that they are going to roll back the authority of Page’s office when his term expires in March. This is despite the fact that they created this very office in 2006 on the premise of ensuring accountability. The government has made absolutely no efforts to begin the process to find a replacement for the soon-to-be-vacant position despite calls from Page himself, and members of all sides of the house, and it seems clear that this position is perceived by the Tories as a 5-year experiment gone horribly wrong.
End of the PBO era
Seeing Ottawa lose Page (who is not seeking to be re-appointed) is like seeing Gotham lose Batman. He chose to accept a position that seemed doomed from the start. The creation of the PBO was inherently symbolic and governed by intentionally nebulous legislation which placed his job security at the whim of the PM. Despite this, Page took a new and fledgling office by the scruff of its neck and turned it into a bureaucratic jewel through diligence, fearlessness, and a desire to serve both the public and parliament. These traits were formed, in part, by a personal tragedy:
After losing a son, I am not afraid of losing a job for doing what we feel is right and required. Who knows, I may have had a nice public sector career after this if I had spent my time focusing on those low key issues that made everybody happy, particularly the government
he told the Huffington Post. Instead he decided to punch above his weight and has been dubbed the ‘bean-counter with a backbone’ because of it.
Though there is much to say on the political impact Kevin Page and his team have made on Parliament, perhaps there is a greater lesson to learn from this:
That through all the negativity, cynicism, partisan rhetoric, yelling, scandals and frankly, bullshit, that tends to cloud Parliament Hill, there is sometimes a spark. A flicker of hope in the darkness which reveals, if only for a fleeting moment, what’s beyond the clouds: a Parliamentary democracy that can be more than just a footnote in people’s lives. A place where honesty, integrity and a sense of duty can find their way into a position of power: where healthy debate and accountability comes to the forefront, and public apathy can turn into engagement and curiosity. Though some may lament the inevitable disappearance and suppression of the spark, others will try to desperately fan it into a flame. I, for one, am glad we even saw it all, and regardless of what happens in March, I tip my hat to the ‘bean-counter with a backbone’ knowing that all hope is indeed not lost.
(Photos: canada.2020, Creative Commons, Flickr)