The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), Kevin Page, has told Canadians that he does not believe the Harper government is in any rush to appoint his replacement. Page is the first person ever to hold the position which was created by the Harper government in 2006. In just a few months Page’s term as PBO will expire.
Let me be among the first to say that the government should not appoint a replacement to the position of PBO. When Mr. Page’s term expires the government should, first, shake their heads and apologize for subjecting Canadian democracy to this incompatible malware. Secondly, they should bring forward legislative changes to remove the position from Canada’s Library of Parliament.
The PBO was dreamed up somewhere in the policy discussions of the Conservative Party during the Gomery inquiry. At the time, Conservatives were annoyed with Chretien for fudging the budget in the early years of his mandate, only to -- surprise! -- suddenly find plenty of money in the months leading up to an election.
Understandably, the Tories felt this style of fiscal-stowing was less than democratic. Thus, the PBO was concocted as a thievery on the part of Tories from the American republic. It is the mere ‘cut and paste’ of the Congressional Budget Office into Canada’s federal parliament.
But the position has never worked out for Canada. Firstly, the position was poorly imagined in its infancy. The PBO was instituted as a quasi-officer of parliament, unlike a real officer of parliament such as the Privacy Commissioner. Instead, the PBO was placed beneath the Library of Parliament and officially reports to both the Speaker of the House and the Speaker of the Senate. Unlike real officers of parliament, Page was noticeably lowered and often squabbled with the Library over who owns the pencils and other earth-shattering events.
The second flaw which accompanied this plagiarism of the Congressional Budget Office was that it failed to take proper consideration of the nature of Canadian democracy. Canada is, of course, a Westminster system in which budgets are a matter of ‘confidence’ and the executive is formed from the legislative branch. Failing to maintain confidence means that the government falls and that we re-do the carpets in the Prime Minister’s Office.
In the American system they don’t even write budgets anymore. And the president doesn’t show up in Congress for four hours a week to be yelled at and verbally defiled by his political opponents. Their system of government is to ours as a VCR is to DVD. The CBO model doesn’t work in Canada. It may be a meaningful addition if incorporated properly, but the reality is that it hasn’t been and to date there hasn’t been a substantive discussion on establishing a PBO model which works in a Westminster system.
Of course, it also has to be said that Kevin Page took a position which was poorly envisaged and designed only to use it as a pyromaniac uses an abandoned rural gas station. Obviously, the NDP and the LPC consider this to be heroism worthy of accolades. Few non-partisans who have looked at the position will agree that Page has been a successful trailblazer for the PBO experiment.
The position likely would have been re-constructed after the term of its first appointee. Like any new product of government, sea trials always show designers where to find fatal flaws. In this case, Page has demonstrated to the PBO’s designers that they are responsible for building a lemon.
After several years of PBO incompatibility the Harper government needs to suck it up and acknowledge that they made a mistake. The Congressional Budget Office only works in a Congressional system. If we desire a similar officer in Canada, we need to design one for the Canadian democracy. Otherwise, let’s face the facts: the PBO was a poorly imagined role and Kevin Page has done nothing but ensure that the position fails to evolve.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Page. It’s time to convert your office into an aquarium.