Counting the cost of Parliament
As Canada’s first-ever Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), Kevin Page’s challenge is speaking the plain truth to those in power. The PBO’s mandate is to provide an independent, non-partisan analysis of the Canadian economy, the nation's finances, and the federal spending plans—even if his calculations contradict the government’s party line.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper created the position as an election promise to make the federal government more accountable, he picked Page in March 2008 from a slate of three candidates suggested by a search committee headed by the Parliamentary Librarian—to whom the PBO reports.
Page, 52, was a reluctant recruit. “I didn’t really want the job,” he admits. One of his three children had recently died in an accident, and Page wanted to be available as he and his family grieved.
A federal civil servant for 27 years, he also sensed that the federal bureaucracy was not about to create a strong countervailing institution. “Accountability is a hard sell in any environment,” he says.
Another element to the job that concerned Page was the political sparring and media attention the PBO would invite by its very existence. Neither were concerns in his pervious jobs.
It was only when two colleagues Page respected said they would be wiling to follow him to the PBO that he warmed to the position. “They sold the job to me,” he says.
Today, he has a staff of 12 financial analysts and economists (including two who did doctorates at Queen’s). Two years into a five-year term, the financial watchdog has shown plenty of teeth.
In particular, he has repeatedly disputed the government’s economic forecasts. “In the fall of 2008, when the wheels were starting to come off, economically speaking, we said there had to be an economic stimulus package,” he recalls. “At the time, the PM was saying there would be no recession and no deficit.”
Following Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s March 2010 budget, Page reprised an earlier warning that without raising taxes substantially, Ottawa’s structural deficit was here to stay for a very long time. “The Government says we can grow our way out of the deficit; we say you can’t.”
Although the PBO’s mandate is to act on requests from legislators on both sides of the aisle, Page concedes that his work often helps the Opposition. “The Government is well taken care of,” he says. “It’s the Opposition parties that don’t have access to the bean counters.”
It’s not only the PBO’s macro-economic and fiscal analyses that have captured public attention. During the last election campaign, Page released a study of the costs of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan that put the Harper Government on the defensive. The report, which forecast that the bill for the mission would eventually cost taxpayers somewhere between $14 and $18 billion. This was the first official attempt to put a price on all components of the war effort.
While Page notes that he released the study with the assent of the PM and the other party leaders, a joint Senate-Commons committee that reviewed his first two years in the job insisted the PBO not issue reports during future election campaigns. Unrepentant, Page insists, “We need to be all about transparency.”
Born in Thunder Bay, Page gravitated toward economics because he “loved the combination of big social and economic issues that economists deal with, and being able to do so using quantitative skills.” He recalls his years at Queen’s as a “fantastic” experience, earning an MA under the tutelage of economists such as Richard Lipsey, Douglas Purvis, and Richard Harris, PhD’81. (He also met his wife-to-be, Julie, while he was on campus.)
Page’s grad studies focused on wage/price pressures in the economy, and so it was a good fit when the federal Finance Department hired him as a price analyst in 1981. “I thought I was more of a private-sector person, but the recession was on, so I took the offer,” he recalls.
Page remained with Finance until 1994, when he began the first of three stints he has had with the Privy Council Office, the hub of civil-service influence.
As for his current post, Page says, “I’m not sure I’m the right guy for a second five-year term.”
Regardless, he wants his successor to have more independence. Rather than being a prime ministerial appointee who reports to the Parliamentary Librarian, he says, “The next person should be a truly independent officer of Parliament who is appointed by Parliament and dismissed only by Parliament.”