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Canada's feistiest policy analyst visits Whitehorse

Yukon public policy wonks had a treat this week when Kevin Page visited town and gave a talk about his surprisingly dramatic experience as federal Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Yukon public policy wonks had a treat this week when Kevin Page visited town and gave a talk about his surprisingly dramatic experience as federal Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Page was the first head of Canada’s PBO, which was inspired by the widely-admired U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The idea is to have an independent and non-partisan set of eyes to review budgets, forecasts and major policy initiatives so that the people’s representatives have all the facts they need before they vote. The recent brouhahas in Washington over the deficit, Obamacare and the debt ceiling would have been even worse if CBO hadn’t been putting some hard numbers on the table.

Having access to objective facts is critical in a democracy so elected representatives can hold the executive to account.

This, of course, is why the executive generally hates things like the PBO. They prefer that legislatures and voters rely on the figures that the government deems fit to release. The current government pointedly did not renew Page’s contract and he was replaced last March as head of PBO by someone who is more agreeable to the powers that be.

Washington is used to the CBO. Politicians disagree with it and call it names, but few question the need for it. In Canada, however, both cabinet ministers and senior government officials were outraged by the independence of Page and his gang of less than a dozen out-of-control economists in Ottawa.

Page pointed out that this issue is crucial to effective democracy, since a fundamental principle is that elected representatives control the budget.

Our forebears fought a long and costly civil war on this point against King Charles II and his autocratic tendencies, and it was a critical part of the arrival of responsible government in Canada in the mid 1800s. The American revolutionary slogan of “No taxation without representation” was on a similar theme.

Page was surprisingly entertaining for an economist. He made some sobering points nonetheless.

He said that one of the objectives of the PBO should be to put the facts on the table so that short-term and spin-obsessed politicians don’t get decisions “grotesquely wrong.” He said that the level of debate in Ottawa puts us at risk of getting several huge issues grotesquely wrong, including the aging population, health care and the environment. This is something that most observers of Ottawa over the last few decades would agree with.

He also talked about specific big-ticket items where bad decision making could cost billions. Examples include the “tough on crime” agenda and its need for thousands of expensive prison spaces, and the F-35 fighter jet program.

Page also made a broader point about “institutional degeneration.” By this he meant the erosion of the institutions that this country needs to be effective, and which have helped Canada become one of the most desirable places to live on the planet. A key example is Parliament. The degree of scrutiny that Parliament gives to most bills and budget proposals is now minimal. Huge bills pass without most MPs having read them or even thought seriously about the consequences. Parliamentary committees and question period have degenerated into strange forms of performance art.

He also made an interesting reference to “high quality people” being involved in many parts of the government machine, but the level of debate and outcomes being so woeful. It is indeed interesting that this widely shared view that the poor quality of our public decision making comes at a time when MPs are better educated on average and departments have more policy analysts than ever before.

The former PBO puts it down to “weak leadership,” which is something every cabinet minister and senior official in Ottawa should think about.

Page’s speech was sponsored by the Yukon NDP, which was very nice of them. Page’s non-partisan talk was followed by federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who test-drove his stump speech for the next election.

The need for a PBO is not limited to Ottawa. Every provincial and territorial legislature suffers from many of the same dysfunctions as their federal counterpart. If anything, the facts coming out of a small provincial or territorial government may be even spottier and less reliable than those coming from federal departments.

Here in the Yukon, we desperately need a Territorial Budget Officer. We do get periodic visits from the Auditor General, but those reports come years after the bad decisions in question. It would be much better to close the gate before the huskies run off.

A TBO would have published the business case for the Watson Lake and Dawson City hospitals, including their long-run operating costs. This would have allowed a clear-eyed debate about the total cost of those facilities and their long-term impacts on the stretched health budget.

The new F.H. Collins is another example. If we have $50 million (or whatever the number is today) to spend on education, where is the options paper comparing hiring ten more teachers for the next fifty years at the school to rebuilding it with a smaller gym and classrooms? The schmozzle around the cancellation of the first new F.H.Collins and the exact budget also had a strong whiff of the federal F-35 jet budget fiasco. A TBO would have gotten to the bottom of that, or let voters know that the numbers didn’t add up.

It’s worth pointing out that the existence of a TBO wouldn’t just help voters and MLAs hold the executive to account. It actually would help cabinet ministers too, since the prospect of scrutiny forces officials to sharpen their thinking. This helps politicians avoid those painful moments when they end up owning some bad idea that has percolated up unchallenged from their department.

All the territorial parties should promise to create a truly independent TBO as soon as possible.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show or Twitter @hallidaykeith