Friday, July 17, 2009

We need clarity on the Parliamentary Budget Office

If I could channel Stephane Dion for a moment, when it comes to this brouhaha around the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), what we need here is some clarity.

I doubt the debate around the role, powers and place of the PBO is one that really resonates outside the world of policy wonks and political media and bloggers. That doesn’t really matter though, because good governance should concern us all, and that’s what this is about.

As I make it out, there seems to be a gap between what the PBO was intended to be based on the spirit and rhetoric back around its creation by the Conservatives (an independent officer of parliament, a la auditor general, who would report to parliamentarians and the public by providing an independent analysis on matters budgetary) and what the enabling legislation actually created (a branch within the library of parliament, with a reporting structure through the parliamentary committee).

It's important first to remember that distinction between what the rhetoric was, and what the legislation actually did. Despite the rhetoric, the legislation is what it is, and I think it's legitimate to say Kevin Page and the PBO need to be governed by the actual legislation, not what we thought or wished it had said.

That seems to be the position of the Liberal Party at the moment, and I can accept that. We should respect the legislation and law as written, and Mr. Page should govern his activities accordingly.

But where we need clarity, and where I’d like clarity from the Liberals, is on whether or not we feel the legislation should be amended to create what we thought we were creating in the first place, to fulfill in legislation the spirit of the original rhetoric: an independent officer of parliament. To my knowledge, the Liberals have been silent on that issue (I suspect I know the Conservatives’ position; they're a lost cause) and I want that to change.

Now, for sure I know the theoretical political arguments against it. Sure, we love the PBO now while he’s causing angst for Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty. But what about a future Liberal government? An independent PBO could be a thorn in our side too. So let’s rein him in now, under CPC cover.

A defensible tactical argument, to which I reply tough cookies. This is about good governance; we need to rise above base political considerations. And there's a simple way to avoid getting into conflict with the PBO: provide accurate, honest, and clear budgetary forecasts. And if we still have disagreements with the PBO, argue our case on the merits, respectfully.

It's time for clarity on the Liberal position on the PBO. Do we support amending the legislation to create an actually independent PBO, yes or no?

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Brad Dillman said...

I'm interested, maybe cautiously supporting an independent PBO. If things were ideal, I'd be all for it. But I'm worried about bias.

What happens if the PBO becomes biased? I'll be some conservatives might already think the PBO has a liberal bias. Who appoints the PBO? I'm thinking about similar things like appointed senators, judges, etc. Accounting is not simple, and different accounting methods and measurements are confusing to compare (or shouldn't be compared); there's lots of room to bias those measures and methods.

It's tempting to think an independent PBO might tend to be less biased, in the same way the bureaucracy in general is insulated from parliament (at least it used to be, more so, in the past). But this doesn't apply to messages from the Department of Finance, I think.

If the PBO is biased toward the government then it is redundant with the Department of Finance.

If the PBO is biased against the government then it is just publishing opposition rhetoric.

Maybe the committee reporting structure is a way of limiting that bias, or at least in the question put to the PBO and the response to reports from the PBO? Maybe not, I'm no expert.

Jeff said...


Currently the PBO is appointed (or at least nominated) by the government. Page was Harper's pick, so their accusations of Liberal bias amusing.

But anyway, speaking broadly, I think the ideal structure is an independent officer of parliament, akin to the auditor general, reporting to parliament and nor buried within the Library of Parliament.

What happens if they become biased? Well, if Parliament hires them, Parliament can fire them. Of course, if, say, a majority government were to can them for political reasons, there'd be a political price to pay.

But I don't think bias is really at the core of this debate, at least not for me. People will judge the PBO's reports on their merits, and they aren't the be all and end all. It's just meant to be an independent voice with access to the books, another voice to consider. We just need to make sure they have the tools and freedom to do their job.

Steve V said...

"So let’s rein him in now, under CPC cover."

That's sadly how I took Carolyn Bennett's comments a couple months ago in The Hill Times.

Ryan Krahn said...

I think the Liberal caucus will have to figure this out for itself first. Paul Well's post on Monday bashing the party for being of two minds on the PBO question would suggest that that is still far off.