- Hit List
- Documentation Project
On March 25, 2008, Mr. Kevin Page was appointed Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), a position created under the Conservative government’s Federal Accountability Act of 2006. Upon his appointment, Mr. Page discovered numerous discrepancies in the government’s spending estimates. He reported on them and found himself in the public spotlight as a result. The Harper government undermined Kevin Page’s work to hold the government accountable, cut the PBO’s funding, tried to limit Page’s mandate as well as his reporting to Parliament and the Canadian public, and failed to cooperate with his investigations.
In the 1980s, the Mulroney government presided over a period of growth in the federal debt and deficit that were inaccurately or inadequately estimated by Finance Department officials. Under the Chrétien and Martin Liberals, a series of “surprise surpluses” were announced as the government implemented deficit reduction measures. A push for “truth in budgeting” led to the creation of an “independent Parliamentary Budget Authority” in 2006. The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) was established in the non-partisan Library of Parliament. The lack of alignment and mission-fit between the Library and the PBO would, however, have consequences later on, as would the lack of clarity regarding the PBO’s budget, its staffing, reporting lines and the extent and nature of its independence.
In March 2008 Mr. Kevin Page was appointed Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer. An economist with almost three decades of experience in the federal public service, Mr. Page had served previously with Finance Canada, the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Privy Council Office among several other government departments and agencies. As Parliamentary Budget Officer, Mr. Page was mandated to provide objective and independent analysis to Parliament on the state of Canada’s finances, government estimates and trends in the Canadian economy. The PBO was also charged with undertaking economic and fiscal research on the request of certain committees. If requested by a Parliamentary committee or Member of Parliament, he had authority to estimate the financial costs of any proposal under consideration.
From the outset, Mr. Page’s office and activities were critical of the ruling Federal Conservative government. Less than a year into his term, Mr. Page issued an analytical report of the cost of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. The Harper government had affirmed prior to this report that the mission’s costs to date were less than $8 billion. However, the PBO report suggested that the costs could total $18.1 billion, or $1,500 per Canadian household, by 2011. That report prompted Commons Speaker Peter Milliken and Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella to complain to Parliamentary Librarian, William Young that Mr. Page was exceeding his mandate. A month later, the PBO also criticized the government's financial record-keeping. Mr. Page told MPs that Canada's deficit could rise to as high as $13 billion in the coming year, due largely to Conservative cuts to the Goods and Services Tax as well as increased government spending.
Budget Cuts and Mandate Challenges
At the end of 2008, just nine months after taking office, Mr. Page learned that the PBO’s own budget was going to be cut by one-third from $2.8 million to $1.8 million and frozen at that level. The government, the Parliamentary Librarian, and the Commons and Senate Speakers argued that the PBO should have a more limited mandate to monitor government spending. The Parliamentary Librarian asserted that the PBO is, like all other executives in the Library, not accountable to Parliament but rather to the Librarian.
Mr. Page sought a legal opinion from the law firm of McCarthy Tétrault regarding the ambit of his legislative mandate. This external legal opinion determined that the PBO’s operating model is supposed to be non-partisan, objective and fully transparent, and that this is consistent with the Parliament of Canada Act. The law firm advised that while clearly a part of the Library of Parliament (LOP), the PBO is distinct from other senior executives due to the functional independence required in order to fulfill the legislated mandate, while operating within the administrative control of the LOP. The opinion further noted that the administrative control of the LOP should support rather than stifle the PBO in fulfilling the Office’s mandate.
In a lengthy analysis of the conflicts caused by differing perspectives on the role and responsibility of the PBO, Brooke Jeffrey wrote in the Canadian Parliamentary Review that “placing the PBO within the Library of Parliament instead of providing it with its own office, resources and legislative mandate was doomed to failure.” Mr. Page himself noted that the Parliamentary Librarian had gone so far as to find that the PBO “is not to provide analysis and opinion to parliamentarians such that could be seen to challenge the government of the day.” Jeffrey also identified two issues that if not addressed would continue to undermine the realization of the PBO’s mandate. First, she said, is the question of the stability of the PBO’s own funding and the implications of this funding on the office’s independence, and second the conflicting interpretations of the PBO’s legal mandate.
In the same essay, Jeffrey suggested that Mr. Page’s “record of success” in producing consistently highly competent studies gave him some degree of protection from political pressures. The PBO, she asserted, “has the potential to threaten some of the most important vested interests and departments of the Federal Government, namely Finance Canada, Treasury Board and the Privy Council.”
In July 2009, over a hundred economists, including seven current Canada Research Chairs, openly called for more political support for the PBO because of its success in “elevating democratic debate in Canada.” A former senior bureaucrat praised Mr. Page for his “superior forecasting ability.” By contrast, a review of PBO fiscal forecasts by The Globe and Mail claimed that government estimates were more accurate. But this notwithstanding, in a study issued January 2010, Mr. Page reported on the deterioration of the financial situation in Canada, asserting that Canada has a “structural deficit” and will not meet its 2015 target for erasing it. Such projections put him further at odds with the Ministry of Finance’s projections and with comments made by the Prime Minister at that time.
According to The Globe and Mail, the Prime Minister’s Office produced an internal memorandum criticizing Mr. Page. While Conservative MP, Royal Galipeau (Ottawa-Orleans, Ontario) recognized Mr. Page as a talented professional; he nonetheless dismissed his reports as “political decisions." Galipeau added that though the PBO was established to serve Parliament, it had become politicized. At about the same time, the government offered to restore the PBO’s original annual budget of $2.8 million but only on the condition that Mr. Page desists from issuing further reports on “the state of the nation's finances and trends in the national economy” either directly to the House of Commons or to the public. Mr. Page refused to honour the condition.
Non-Cooperation as Government Strategy
In March 2010, the government restored the PBO’s annual budget to the originally planned level of $2.8 million without the previously mentioned condition. Subsequently, the PBO continued to challenge government financial estimates. However, in January 2011, the PBO noted that it had been encountering stiff resistance from responsible individuals and agencies to its request for details of the government’s five-year plan of internal budget freezes. The PBO also was embroiled in a debate over whether the Harper government was in contempt of Parliament for refusing to provide the House of Commons with detailed information on the cost of its proposed justice legislation, the estimated cost of an F-35 aircraft, and the estimated cost of a planned reduction of Corporate Tax Rates. The PBO confirmed to Parliament that the government had this information in its custody and that Parliament had a right to obtain it in order to make informed decisions.
Following the March budget in 2012, Mr. Page sought details of the possible impact of the $5.1 billion-a-year budget cuts to key government departments including Finance, Foreign Affairs, Immigration and Citizenship, Environment and Treasury Board as well as how those cuts were to be achieved. The PBO also specifically targeted the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) where the cuts were especially controversial following a massive beef recall resulting from E.Coli infections. As of October of that year, none of those departments had agreed to voluntarily reveal the information Mr. Page requested.
Then, in early November 2012, Mr. Thomas Mulcair, leader of the opposition in federal Parliament, wrote to Mr. Page requesting that he analyze whether savings outlined in the 2012 budget were achievable or likely to be achieved. Mr. Mulcair also sought information on whether and the extent to which a failure to achieve the savings would result in fiscal consequences in the longer term. On November 21, 2012, Mr. Page submitted a reference question to the Federal Court to determine whether the analysis that Mr. Mulcair had requested fell within the mandate of the PBO. Mr. Page indicated that he would only respond to Mr. Mulcair’s request if the court decided that he had jurisdiction to do so. In the lawsuit, Mr. Page raised an additional question: whether it is within the PBO’s mandate, pursuant to the Parliament of Canada Act to request that government departments provide information regarding their planned fiscal savings due to staffing reductions.
Mr. Page’s lawyers argued that all the questions should yield positive answers. For its part, the government argued that the court had no jurisdiction to answer Mr. Page’s questions because Parliament reserved the right to answer these questions itself by way of parliamentary privilege. In the alternative, the government asserted that should the court find that it has jurisdiction to answer the questions, it should still not do so because there was no justiciable dispute before it.
In April 2013, Justice Sean Harrington of the Federal Court issued a judgment in the case. Siding with the PBO in part, he held that the court had the jurisdiction to answer Mr. Page’s questions because Parliament could not reserve the right to answer these questions, neither on the basis of parliamentary privilege nor on the principle of statutory interpretation. However, Justice Harrington observed that Mr. Page had not made requests for data specifically in response to Mr. Mulcair’s request, which meant that there was no record before the court indicating that the government had refused to provide such data. As such, Justice Harrington determined that Mr. Page’s questions were hypothetical and non-justiciable.
As early as 2010, Mr. Page had announced that he would not seek reappointment when his term of office expired in March 2013. Some welcomed the announcement. Others worried that when Page’s term ended it will be impossible to fill the post, and his leaving "will mark the end of an experiment in accountability and transparency that was doomed from the beginning."
True to his word, on March 25, 2013 Mr. Page left office. He described his time at the PBO as “an extraordinary opportunity.” In a letter published a few days after he stepped down, Mr. Page said his team “wanted to be a 21st-century public sector organization - transparent, accountable, analytical and lean.” But as he made his exit, he claimed: “The PBO is under threat” because as he cleared his desk, a successor was nowhere in sight while the Parliamentary Librarian Sonia L'Heureux was appointed on an interim basis. Only later in August 2013 did the Prime Minister name a permanent PBO in Jean-Denis Frechette, then Senior Director of Economics, Resources and International Affairs Division of the Library of Parliament's Information and Research Service.
Four months after leaving office as PBO, in July 2013 Mr. Page was appointed the Jean-Luc Pepin Research Chair on Canadian Government at the University of Ottawa. During his three-year term as Research Chair, Page initially taught two courses at the Faculty of Social Sciences: one in Economics and the other in Public Administration. He is also working towards the creation of a new institute dedicated to public finance issues.
- December 12, 2006: Federal Accountability Act is passed to create the Parliamentary Budget Office.
- March 25, 2008: Kevin Page is appointed as Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer.
- October 2008: The PBO publishes one of its first major reports, and the first controversial report, analyzing the cost of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.
- November 2008: Commons and Senate Speakers Peter Milliken and Noel Kinsella complain that Page is overstepping his mandate.
- December 2008: Nine months after taking office, Kevin Page learns that his budget is to be cut by one-third (from $2.7 million to $1.8 million).
- January 2009: Kevin Page seeks independent legal opinion regarding the legislative mandate of his Office.
- June 2009: The government offers to restore the PBO’s $2.8 million annual budget but with conditions.
- January 2010: Kevin Page issues another controversial report which again puts his Office at odds with the Federal Conservative government, and the Prime Minister's Office responds with a scathing internal memo criticizing Mr. Page.
- March 2010: The government restores the PBO's budget to the original $2.8 million without conditions.
- September 2010: Kevin Page announces that he will not seek reappointment when his term of office expires in March 2013.
- March 2012: The Government of Canada’s budget contains $5.2 billion in spending cuts. Mr. Page asks the Clerk of the Privy Council for details. None were forthcoming.
- October 2012: Mr. Page writes directly to all Federal Deputy Ministers, requesting details of the impacts of budgetary spending cuts. As a result of the failure of 62 out of 82 government departments to comply, Mr. Page announces that the "PBO will be filing and serving legal notice on all non-compliant deputy heads [of departments]."
- November 2012: Mr. Page submits a reference question to the Federal Court.
- March 2013: Mr. Page leaves office as PBO after completing a five-year term.
- April 2013: Ottawa Federal Court decides that Mr. Page’s suit was hypothetical and therefore non-justiciable.
- July 2013: Mr. Page is appointed the Jean-Luc Pepin Research Chair on Canadian Government at the University of Ottawa.
Role or Position
Implications and Consequences
- Transparency: The government withheld information and resources from Kevin Page and the PBO such that this jeopardized their capacity to effectively do their job. The government’s actions in this regard failed to respect the principle of transparency in government.
- Access to Information: Democratic governments seek to maximize the extent to which citizens have access to information. The federal government attempted to limit the PBO's capacity to provide Parliament and the Canadian public with critical information about how their tax dollars were being spent. This shows a disdain for honest, democratic governance, and a fear of being held to account for their actions.
- Democracy: As Canada’s first PBO, and despite the underfunding of his office, Kevin Page demonstrated the importance of an independent office dedicated to analyzing government estimates, budgets and expenditures. Going forward, the PBO will only provide a maximum benefit to Canadians if it suffers less government interference and stalling, and more cooperation.
- Accountability: For a government to be democratic, it must be accountable. To be truly accountable, the government must be subjected to scrutiny from credible, independent observers. The independence of the PBO is compromised by the lack of secure and adequate funding, as well as by its current administrative structure. Both components should be remedied through new legislation to ensure that the PBO is protected from political retribution and therefore able to properly serve the needs of Parliament. Otherwise, the government cannot claim to be fully accountable.
- Institutional Independence: The PBO’s funding and mandate disputes, together with Conservative criticisms of the PBO, apparently politicized an office that could only function effectively as an independent, non-partisan body. As long as the government politicizes an institution intended to keep watch over government spending, the government can neither claim to be acting in good faith nor convince Canadians that their tax dollars are being used honestly and effectively.
Date created: 26 October 2012
Date updated: 3 June 2014
Photo from Reuters.