Speech in the House - Opposition Motion - Parliamentary Budget Officer


 

Murray Rankin Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Beauport—Limoilou.

I am honoured to speak today on this important motion by my colleague, the member for Parkdale—High Park, our opposition finance critic.

This motion calls on the government to do two distinct things: first, to extend the mandate of the current Parliamentary Budget Officer, Mr. Page, until his replacement is named; and second, to make the PBO a full, independent officer of Parliament. I am going to speak to both of those issues.

I think we would all acknowledge that the Parliamentary Budget Officer has played, and continues to play, a critical role, one that is necessary for this Parliament to do its work and is ultimately making it easier for us to fulfill our responsibilities as parliamentarians in a functioning democracy.

However, if a replacement for the current Parliamentary Budget Officer is not named prior to the completion of Mr. Page's term on March 25, it is possible that the PBO may cease to function, with the staff effectively being returned to the Library of Parliament, we understand. That would be absolutely unacceptable.

The PBO has produced an outstanding body of top-quality work with very limited resources. We understand there is a skeleton staff of some 14 people. They have already exposed gross mismanagement of our economy to parliamentarians such as the true cost of the F-35s, the sustainability of the old age security and guaranteed income supplement program, and more.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer was a position created by the Conservatives and received, in principle, support across party lines. It is an independent officer, as I said, but as I will describe later, it is a very different kind of officer than the classic independent officers, such as the Auditor General, the Information Commissioner and the Privacy Commissioner. I will try to delineate those distinctions in a moment.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer's responsibilities include providing an independent analysis of the state of our economy, the nation's finances and the government's expenditure plan, and an analysis of the estimates of expenditures of any government department or agency when requested to do so by a parliamentary committee that is reviewing the estimates.

The officer is also mandated to provide an estimate of costs for any proposal that falls within the jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada.

Now, I am urging members across the floor to support this motion. Many of them, if not all of them, supported the creation of the office in the first place. Therefore, surely they would share the same concern and understand why it is so vitally important to make sure there is no vacancy in that office.

The New Democratic Party is committed to sound public administration and as such believes that Canada requires a strong and independent Parliamentary Budget Officer. That is why my colleague from Parkdale—High Park moved this important motion, and that is why I felt so strongly that I would speak to this matter today.

On March 14, 2008, the government House leader first announced the appointment of Kevin Page as Canada's first Parliamentary Budget Officer. The government announced:

The appointment fulfills another commitment made to Canadians during the last election. “As promised in the federal Accountability Act, the Parliamentary Budget Officer will provide independent analysis to Canadians on the state of Canada's finances,”

said the hon. House leader:

“With his expertise in economics, Mr. Page is a fine choice to fill that position.”

We agree. We therefore say that he should remain until his successor is named. He has proven over time that he has the confidence of Canadians in exercising his duties and informing the public on the state of the economy and how our tax dollars are spent.

For the sake of accountability, it is our position that it is crucial that parliamentarians, who are ultimately responsible in the coming months for providing input and oversight on the government's budget, continue to benefit from his invaluable advice.

Conservatives have attacked Mr. Page because he has continuously highlighted financial and fiscal mismanagement on many files.

These constant political attacks only serve to underscore the need for a strong and independent Parliamentary Budget Officer.

On November 21 of last year, the Parliamentary Budget Officer felt compelled to refer questions to the Federal Court to seek the court's guidance as to whether work requested by the leader of the official opposition was within his jurisdiction. The work requested that the PBO analyze the government's estimates to determine if the savings contemplated were achievable and/or had long-term fiscal implications, critical for him to do his very vital work.

The creation of the PBO was supported, I reiterate, by all parties in Parliament. However, it appears the current government has decided that it no longer considers fiscal accountability as a priority.

At the finance committee on February 5 this year, a committee of which I am a member, the Conservatives used procedural tactics to block the extension of the Parliamentary Budget Officer's current term. This action was disappointing, to say the least, particularly when they know as well as we do how important and cost effective this officer has been.

Let me give examples. The PBO has a grand total of 12 full-time staff, I am advised, with two interns. Contrast that with the Congressional Budget Office, which has 200-plus staff. The budget of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is $2.8 million. The budget of the Congressional Budget Office: $46.8 million. Yet, in its very short existence, the PBO has published over 150 analytical reports. That's not bad for such a small operation.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer, in our view, provides tremendous value to all Canadians, by ensuring the government meets the basic tenets of financial and fiscal accountability. He has played an essential role in protecting our seniors, for example, who are critical in my riding of Victoria, by reporting that the OAS and GIS programs were sustainable prior to the Prime Minister's cuts to the program.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer regularly updates Parliament on the long-run fiscal sustainability of our country, an important type of study to ensure that young Canadians will not inherit a fiscal economic mess. In fact, the PBO has also pointed to Finance Canada's failure to provide intergenerational impacts on budget cuts.

Yet, the Conservatives have attacked anyone who has dared to disagree with them: Statistics Canada, our scientists, labour organizations, charities, and now, sadly, the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

In conclusion, New Democrats want to strengthen the already outstanding work of the PBO. We want to ensure there is no disruption to the continuous operation of this officer. To this end, we want his term to be extended until a replacement is made.

I want to now turn to the second of the issues I want to address, which is the need for the independent officer of Parliament status for this important office. We want this process to be open and transparent. There are widespread fears among Canadians that the government will either fail to fill the position or appoint someone unable or unwilling to act as effectively as Mr. Page has done. We want to further expand the outstanding work of this office in order for him to do his work without political attack.

This office is not the Auditor General; it is not like the Information Commissioner or the Privacy Commissioner. Each of them are officers of Parliament. What is the difference? They have a seven-year term. They are appointed upon joint address: a resolution of both Houses of Parliament. Canadians have seen the value of an independent Privacy Commissioner working on behalf of all of us to look after that important issue.

There is a precedent. Like this, the office was initially situated in a government agency. Canada's first Privacy Commissioner, Inger Hansen, was within the Canadian Human Rights Commission at first, and then, under the Privacy Act, became an independent officer of Parliament.

Legally, Canadians need exactly that level of independence and integrity, and that is where putting it in a separate officer of Parliament statute would provide that guarantee. If we have an effective Information Commissioner, Auditor General, Privacy Commissioner, we say the Parliamentary Budget Officer should have no less of a degree of independence to serve all Canadians.