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Budget officer firm, faces down his critics

Government forced to maintain position

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It's enough to make you wonder about Kevin Page's sanity.

A career civil servant and economist, Page was appointed by the Conservative government as Canada's first Parliamentary Budget Officer two years ago. Since then, he has been in almost constant conflict with the people who appointed him.

He challenged Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's fiscal projections. He produced estimates of the cost of the war in Afghanistan that showed the conflict would cost nearly twice as much as the government had estimated. He sparred publicly with parliamentarians, and the speakers of both the House of Commons and Senate after they chastised him for taking his reports directly to the public.

These might be interpreted as the actions of a mad man. However, if you need evidence that Page is, in fact, one of the most intelligent and sane men on Parliament Hill, you need only look at the fact that he tried, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to turn the job down.

"I didn't want the job," Page said on a recent trip to Winnipeg. "I was asked several times if I would apply and I told them no. Honestly, I wasn't convinced they really wanted to hear what a PBO had to say."

At the time of his appointment, Page was an economist working within the Privy Council Office. He was the senior-most economist advising Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Staff in the Prime Minister's Office so liked and trusted Page they hounded him to interview for the job.

In theory, the job was exactly the kind of gig Page would crave. Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Page has spent nearly three decades in the hottest spots in the federal bureaucracy, including gigs at the PCO, the Finance Department and Treasury Board. During that time, he forged a reputation as a frank, non-nonsense advisor and analyst.

A central feature of the Tories' much-touted Accountability Act, the PBO was supposed to provide an unvarnished look at the nuts and bolts of government revenues and expenditures. The parliamentary budget officer would examine the cost of government programs before the money was spent. In this regard, the PBO's work is much different than say the Auditor General, who starts work after the money has been spent.

Despite his initial misgivings, Page agreed to sit as one of three candidates on a short list. In that interview, Page said he did not mince words about his belief the PBO needed to be independent and transparent in all of its work. He continued to be skeptical that any government wanted that much transparency, especially when it came to fiscal matters.

And then they offered him the job. Despite his misgivings, Page said he felt he had to take on the challenge, even though most of his initial concerns came to fruition. Now, Page has found he is fighting a war on multiple fronts.

The decision to locate his office within the Library of Parliament was, in retrospect, the first sign that efforts would be made to curb the profile and influence of the PBO. The library is mandated to provide non-partisan analysis to parliament and its committees. At the time, the library already had 30 economists on its staff; senior mandarins in the venerable library saw the PBO as a redundant intrusion.

Efforts were made to cut his $2.8-million budget by $1 million. Page was forced to go public with threats to shut down the office if the money was not restored. He got his money, but only after MPs tried to limit the scope of his reports.

Despite having anticipated the likelihood of conflict between government and the PBO, Page said he was nonetheless surprised at some of the reaction to his work. In the fall of 2008, Page released a fiscal analysis that made it clear Canada was headed toward a budget deficit.

This conflicted directly with Flaherty's post-election fiscal update, in which the finance minister predicted Canada would avoid both a recession and a deficit. It was a spark that would ignite a war of words between the PBO and the Tory government that created it.

"I honestly thought that when we released our analysis in the fall of 2008, I though we were actually doing Minister Flaherty a favor," Page said. "We were showing that the recession was global, that the problems Canada was facing were not our fault. But then we got blasted for it. It was an important lesson for us."

Just two years into a five-year term, Page admits there were moments when he thought about packing it in and perhaps leaving government "to work in landscaping." However, he said after talking with his wife, he came to realize that as the first PBO, he needed to hold ground and galvanize the office so that government would be forced to keep it around.

"The lesson I learned was that you have to stick with it," Page said. "If I had quit earlier when I first thought about it, I would have lost all the progress we've made to date. To make this worth it, you have to sustain it."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2010 A6

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