When political parties spend time on the opposition benches they often come up with ideas that look great on paper but lose their lustre once the party moves from the opposition side of the House to the government side. Such has been the case with the Conservatives and the Parliamentary Budget Office presently run by Kevin Page.
It is quite clear that in opposition, the Conservatives envisioned a completely independent office along the lines of the Congressional Budget Office in the United States. They even had concerns that the government of the day might not want to cooperate with the Parliamentary Budget Officer and sought reassurance that this would not be the case when the Finance Committee looked at this issue.
“Just to go back to one area, we got some feedback here in Canada that the government or the executive branch may not cooperate, that the Department of Finance may not cooperate with an independent budget office. But it's my understanding that's not your experience with the Treasury of the United States. They supply you the raw data, and there are built-in safeguards in legislation that say it has to be accurate information.” ( Charlie Penson, Finance Committee, March 9, 2005)
“In other words, this budget office has been generally accepted as a very good organization in the political process in the United States?” (Mr. Charlie Penson, Finance Committee, March 9, 2005)
Today of course the Conservatives see things a little differently and Kevin Page is now preparing to take a number of departments to court in order to obtain financial information that he claims he needs in order to study how the departments intend to meet the government’s deficit reduction targets.
The main government talk point on this matter is the one currently being used by the Minister of Finance:
“… there’s been a tendency on his part to try to expand his mandate into other areas for which he is not responsible.” (Jim Flaherty, October 22, 2012).
Whether or not Kevin Page is overstepping his mandate (as it was created by this government) remains for the experts and politicians to argue over and perhaps for a judge to decide.
The Conservative Party created the position of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, supposedly based on their various election platforms and comments and positions staked out by the Leader of the Official Opposition and various Conservative MPs and finance critics. Here is what the Conservatives originally thought this budget office should look like and be able to do.
“The one way to ensure that we have some scrutiny is for Parliament to have its own set of numbers that aren't run through the Department of Finance filter, that don't answer directly to the finance minister, who also has a political interest, a political incentive, to ensure that the numbers flatter his or her position.” (Monte Solberg, Finance Committee, June 21, 2005)
The Conservative election platform of 2006 was pretty precise as to what they would do once in power.
“A Conservative government will:
• Create an independent Parliamentary Budget Authority to provide objective analysis directly to Parliament about the state of the nation’s finances and trends in the national economy.
• Require government departments and agencies to provide accurate, timely information to the
Parliamentary Budget Authority to ensure it has the information it needs to provide accurate analyses to Parliament.
• Ensure that government fiscal forecasts are updated quarterly and that they provide complete data for both revenue and spending forecasts. (Election Platform, 2006)
Perhaps the words of the then Leader of the Official Opposition, Stephen Harper says it best:
“We believe that an independent, non-partisan parliamentary budget office should produce forecasts of revenues and spending which are universally available and accepted by all parties and experts of all stripes. Such a body would ensure that the government is genuinely accountable for taxpayers' dollars and that we maintain fiscal discipline at the federal level. (Stephen Harper, Oct 6 2004)
Remember the chant from the Conservative backbenches “Promise made, promise kept?” In this case that’s not quite accurate.