In a way it’s a sign of how sick our democracy is, and how pliant our national media has grown, that the future of the Parliamentary Budget Office (and especially its soon-to-retire manager, Kevin Page) is more in doubt than the future of the government whose routine accounting mismanagement he has regularly exposed since gaining his office several years ago. Still, Page’s term will be up soon and the press is making a show of debating what will happen to the office. It’s rumoured that the Conservatives would rather abolish it altogether, but will keep it alive to avoid criticism. I predict they will pick some staid careerist who’s learned that success under this government equates to keeping one’s head down and mouthing platitudes while offering as much bowing and scraping as seems appropriate.
Anyhow, the Globe & Mail has printed a piece by economist Kevin Milligan proposing a “compromise” that will assure the future of the PBO. Basically, Milligan proposes the following: the government will make the office an independent commission so that it cannot be censored or checked by political interference. In exchange, the PBO’s mandate will be narrowed to a few specific issues on which he or she can provide “unique” information to Canadians.
I don’t mean this as an anti-Milligan piece. Milligan is from all I can make out a very competent academic, and he’s by no means a Harper propagandist. In the past he’s printed numerous pieces taking apart various Conservative tax policies and suggesting that they are either unhelpful to lower-income people, or will have serious long-term revenue implications, or both. But on this particular issue, he seems almost hopelessly out of step with what seems to me to be the actual problem his “compromise” is supposed to solve. Which, in my opinion, it won’t solve.
Now, it’s true that the Parliament of Canada Act in its current form gives the Parliamentary Budget Officer an extremely vague remit, covering economic projections, budget projections, costs of legislation, and research requests from MPs. It’s also true that the Conservatives have complained that this remit was broader than they really wanted it to be.
The trouble is, the reports that Page has really ticked off the government with aren’t obviously on the fringes of this broad mandate. Instead, they’re at the very core: how much will a proposed military procurement program really cost? How reliable are the finance minister’s economic projections? What is the actual substance of the government’s proposed austerity program? And so on and so forth. The chief complaint presently levelled against Page isn’t that his office is producing a stream of irrelevant and unnecessary reports about GDP projections. It’s that he’s been producing a stream of politically inconvenient reports about the government’s real and proposed programs, which are very much relevant to Parliament.
As a result, although Milligan seems to feel that the Conservatives could trade greater independence for a narrower mandate, it’s by no means clear that any narrowed mandate would be acceptable to anyone else. Milligan himself gets very vague on the question of what his proposed new mandate would look like: “putting price tags on legislative initiatives and providing baseline budget forecasts.” This sounds very much like what Page is doing already. He doesn’t name any specific initiatives by Page which he feels fall outside of the proposed mandate. It would be nice to know what he has in mind.
The second error, in my opinion, is that compromise is even on the table here. The Conservatives do not have either an interest in or a need to compromise on this. They have it within their power to narrow the PBO’s mandate unilaterally without offering any sort of “compromise” on the office’s independence. They have it within their power to appoint a new PBO who will informally and privately agree to limit the scope of his inquiries with or without any change in the legislative mandate. They have the option of abolishing the PBO altogether.
And regardless of which of these options they choose, the political consequences they face will be negligible. The vast proportion of the media signalled during the 2011 election that they would support the present government unconditionally. They did so by endorsing the Conservatives in record numbers — among major English papers who published endorsements, only the Toronto Star failed to endorse the Conservative Party in the closing days of the campaign — even though said government had just turned a modest budget surplus inherited from the Liberals into the largest budget deficit in the country’s history, and was fresh off of a conviction of contempt of Parliament brought on by its blatant refusal to provide MPs with spending estimates on proposed new programs.
Given, in other words, that the media has already endorsed the principle of refusing to share financial information with Parliament, it’s hard to imagine that they — or the minority of Canadians they speak for — would be at all interested in punishing the party for that very same crime. Why would it be wrong in 2013 but not wrong in 2011?
In short, I don’t think the Conservatives would be willing to offer a compromise on the PBO’s mandate that would be acceptable to anyone else, and I don’t think that the Conservatives have anything to lose from failing to offer a meaningful compromise. The Conservatives have learned well that the constituency they speak for — a constituency which is large enough, influential enough, and as it happens geographically distributed in such a way that it can elect a majority to the House of Commons — is not actually interested in transparent fiscal management, whatever that constituency may say about the wild-eyed profligates of the NDP.
It follows that the real task, daunting and impossible as it may seem, lies not in pursuing futile compromises with those who are currently abusing the treasury, but rather in educating Conservative supporters about the importance of transparency and accountability in a democracy. These are things they used to claim they valued, too.Tweet