Stephen Maher, Postmedia News
Published: Friday, October 12, 2012
In 2006, when the Conservatives were seeking to take power from the Liberals, they promised to ensure truth in budgeting with a Parliamentary Budget Authority.
The authority would “provide objective analysis directly to Parliament about the state of the nation’s finances and trends in the national economy,” said the Tories’ election platform.
Agencies and departments would be required to “provide accurate, timely information to the Parliamentary Budget Authority.”
In a town where senior civil servants get ahead by currying favour with higher ups, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has been a rebel with a calculator and the rightful heir to the mantle of former auditor-general Sheila Fraser, writes Stephen Maher. photo: CHRIS WATTIE
The Conservatives kept their word, passed a law establishing the Parliamentary Budget Office, and in 2008 appointed Kevin Page, an economist from Thunder Bay, Ont., who spent 27 years working as a civil servant in Ottawa.
The only problem is that Page has been providing “objective analysis directly to Parliament about the state of the nation’s finances,” which is the kind of thing that sounds good when you’re in opposition but turns out not to be your cup of tea when you’re running the country.
He has repeatedly embarrassed the government by publicly reporting – quite aggressively – when he thinks their numbers are dishonest or wrong.
In a town where senior civil servants get ahead by currying favour with higher ups, Page has been a rebel with a calculator, an accountant with a defiant streak, the rightful heir to the mantle of former auditor-general Sheila Fraser, speaking truth to power, as he is mandated to do by law and as he is inclined to do by nature.
His office has established a series of databases that track government spending, so that for the first time in Canadian history opposition MPs, journalists and researchers can figure out where the government is spending our money. It’s a second set of books, which is necessary, because finding real information in the first set of books is so difficult.
In principle, in the Westminster supply system, all federal spending is approved by votes in the House of Commons. The money is then sent to departments and agencies, which spend it and then report back to the House.
The problem is that one key part of the system – the budget – is a political document, a long pamphlet highlighting things the government wants you to see. And civil servants have devised accounting systems that resist scrutiny, and governments are constantly finding ways to fiddle with the books, so that they can avoid headlines that say they are cutting something or other that voters might not want cut.
In the 2012 budget, for example, the government announced that it would cut the Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned research facility, by stating that it would “refocus its research activities by leveraging, where it can, academia and other independent facilities.”
It wasn’t until the scientists who work there got their reassignment letters – along with stern warnings to keep their mouths shut – that anyone realized what that bland language meant.
To try to pierce that official secrecy, Page wrote to 56 deputy ministers and asked for their plans for the cuts announced in the 2012 budget: $38 billon over five years. They said no.
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