At his going-away party in March, Kevin Page, the first and so far only parliamentary budget officer (PBO), was presented by his staff with the parting gift of a T-shirt emblazoned with three words: “unbelievable, unreliable, incredible.” These were adjectives Finance Minister Jim Flaherty used a year earlier to describe Page’s work after the budget officer had suggested, contrary to the government’s argument, that the Old Age Security system was sustainable.
If that was one epitaph for the Kevin Page era, another had been offered a month earlier, in February, when NDP MP Pat Martin addressed a meeting of OECD budget officers in Ottawa. Page, Martin said, “might well be the best friend the Canadian taxpayer has in his dogged determination and relentless pursuit of the truth in some of the most important files of our time.”
Those two wildly divergent assessments speak to the promise and frustration the first five years of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer under Page entailed. But in the wake of his exit four months ago, there remains only more uncertainty about what—and who—comes next. The battles swirling around the office are many. There is still no permanent successor to Page. That hasn’t stopped his former staff from clashing with the government over the office’s mandate and right to demand information. And while Page continues to claim the principle of parliamentary accountability, he’s himself facing accusations of being an undignified saboteur of the PBO who has done more harm than good to the place.
As the office he built carries on without him, Page, the chatty, earnest bean-counter, now occupies an office at the University of Ottawa. “I didn’t honestly think I’d get a job in Ottawa,” he says, adding he considered going into landscaping. “I thought maybe I’d burned too many bridges.” Instead, this fall he’ll teach a couple of undergraduate courses, one in political studies, another in economics. But Page’s bigger plan, one that the university supports, is to establish an institute that will, like the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, study the math of public policy. In a statement announcing the appointment, Allan Rock, the university’s president and vice-chancellor, said Page would be a boon to the school’s research team. “His experience in the federal public service will be a major asset in developing the public finance and governance projects we have planned.”
The model for what Page and the university have in mind is the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the United Kingdom, a macroeconomic think tank that says its aim is to “promote effective economic and social policies by understanding better their impact on individuals, families, businesses and the government’s finances.” Launched four decades ago, it relies heavily on government funding through the U.K.’s Economic and Social Research Council.
At this stage details of when Page’s institute will be up and running, and even the business model for how it will be funded, have not been released. But Page estimates it will cost roughly $2 million to operate annually, compared to the $2.8-million budget he worked with at the PBO. He says the institute will examine questions about health care, tax reform and climate change as they relate to public policy, and in that way it will not be all that different from the PBO itself. At the least, given Page’s high-profile battles with the Harper government, any reports the institute produces will be keenly read and reported on by the Ottawa press gallery.
The move, however, has earned Page criticism. Last week Philip Cross, the former chief economist at Statistics Canada, penned a scathing opinion piece in which he accused Page of setting up a “shadow PBO” that will siphon off senior staff from his old office. “That Page cannot see the conflict of interest in undermining the PBO selection process while promoting his own parallel institute at the University of Ottawa suggests he has an ethical blind-spot,” Cross wrote. For his part, Page says he wants to see a strong PBO supported by think tanks providing vital information to help MPs make decisions. “There’s a big need here,” he says. “Parliamentarians, for the most part, don’t have information when they vote.”
That’s not to say the PBO, in Page’s absence, has been standing still. After Page’s exit in March, government House Leader Peter Van Loan named parliamentary librarian Sonia L’Heureux to be the interim PBO. Since then she’s led Page’s former office as it continues the work and the battles that began under him. In recent weeks the PBO indicated it would begin filing access to information requests as part of a months-old dispute with the government over information related to spending cuts included in the 2012 budget. That dispute dates back to last November when NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asked the PBO to perform an analysis of the cuts. Having previously tried and failed to obtain the relevant information, Page asked the Federal Court to clarify what he was entitled to demand from the government, but the court dismissed the matter as “hypothetical,” on the grounds that Page had not yet asked for the information in question,
Prime Minister Stephen Harper subsequently dismissed the court case as a “partisan action,” but in short order, L’Heureux sent letters to 84 government departments seeking information in regards to Mulcair’s request. Now, depending on how the government responds to the access to information requests, the dispute is likely destined to return to the court for a resolution.
Ultimately L’Heureux will have to be replaced with a permanent budget officer. But the selection process has been subject to suspicion and criticism from the start. Page has questioned why the identities of the members of the selection committee charged with recommending possible candidates to the government were kept confidential. When it was uncovered that the chief of staff to Van Loan was a member of the committee, Page said the process should start over. “There has been political interference at the first stage,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s at the time.
But in this area too, Cross, now the research and editorial coordinator at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, has taken Page to task for how he has conducted himself. In his op-ed, Cross accused Page of sabotaging the office by recklessly commenting on the selection process and undermining the authority of his eventual replacement. In an interview Cross also said Page was needlessly adversarial during his time as the PBO. “Being a bull in a china shop, that clearly has not worked,” Cross said in an interview. “Trouble is going to find you without you looking for it. It’s just not the way civil servants behave.”
Asked about his tone, Page wonders what he could have done differently. “Honestly, would it have helped if I was more delicate around costing wars or crime bills or fighter planes or Old Age Security? When the Prime Minister said Old Age Security isn’t sustainable, is there a nicer way to say, well, actually, we did analysis, it is sustainable?” Page acknowledges that he burned bridges with the public service, but says that “we pushed them to be more transparent on behalf of Parliament and Canadians. It was the job.”
One Conservative strategist, who spoke anonymously, notes the idea of a budget officer was easier to propose while in opposition than to live with while in government. The strategist likens what ensued to a “marriage that got out of control” with blame to be assigned to both Page and the government.
For all Page’s concerns that the office is being unwound, the next PBO could still prove a valuable resource. And, eventually, a short walk from Parliament Hill, Page’s new institute will add to the information available to parliamentarians as they hold the government to account. “Does it necessarily mean we’re going to get better decision-making? No. But is it better for democracy? Absolutely,” Page says. “And I do think you’re going to get better decisions when you put this information in front of people.”
All of which sounds familiar to anyone who’s been following Page’s career over the past five years. And all of which, as his own time on Parliament Hill demonstrated, is easier said than done. “But,” Page concedes, “I don’t think change happens easy.”
Maclean's August 19, 2013