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smothering transparency

This week we heard the cri de coeur of an economist in anguish. Kevin Page, the federal parliamentary budget officer whose five-year term is ending this week, wrote an impassioned op-ed piece in the Toronto Star.

This week we heard the cri de coeur of an economist in anguish.

Kevin Page, the federal parliamentary budget officer whose five-year term is ending this week, wrote an impassioned op-ed piece in the Toronto Star.

The PBO has seriously annoyed the federal government, putting hard numbers on the table about topics the Prime Minister’s Office would rather that citizens didn’t know about. Examples include the true costs of the F-35 fighter jet program, the costs and benefits of new federal crime laws, and details of where the $5.2 billion in budget cuts will fall.

It may sound boring, but transparency is critical to good government. Without facts and transparency, government ministers and senior officials are free to operate in a comfy “don’t worry, just trust me” environment. This leads to bad decisions and wasted resources, which we can’t afford if we really want to tackle the challenges facing us as a society.

Page puts it like this in his letter: “Our institutions of accountability are in trouble. Parliament does not get the information and analysis it needs to hold the executive (the prime minister and cabinet) to account.” He describes an example. “One year after the 2012 federal budget, which launched a significant fiscal austerity exercise, parliamentarians still do not have departmental plans to show how restraint will be implemented and service levels managed.”

Remarkably, all we have is bits and pieces dribbling out across the country as the local equivalents of the SS Klondike cuts and Whitehorse tax office closure are replicated nationally.

It is lonely being the parliamentary budget officer. Do the job properly, says Page, and it is the end of your public service career. Upwardly mobile bureaucrats won’t call for lunch. Backbench Conservative MPs will be given talking points questioning your competence, motives and credibility.

But a number of prominent figures have lately joined the fray. Andrew Coyne, a columnist in the National Post, described the recent federal budget this way: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a budget quite so opaque as this one.” He points out that it doesn’t even have a breakout of spending by department, or the details of the $5.2 billion in cuts hitting them.

Two highly respected, retired federal Finance officials also recently went public with a blistering attack on the current government’s penchant for opacity. “Budget documents now contain less economic and fiscal data than in any budget over the previous 25 years,” said Scott Clark and Peter de Vries. “It has become impossible in reading the budget documents to fully understand what the government is actually proposing to do. There is a clear lack of transparency and accountability.” Pretty harsh stuff coming from a former federal deputy minister of Finance and director of fiscal policy.

These two veteran mandarins also backed the PBO in its various disputes with the government.

As a citizen, this worries me. If it were just the opposition and protest groups accusing the

Conservatives of undermining transparency and accountability in our public finances, that would be one thing. But to have right-leaning public intellectuals and traditionally tight-lipped retired legends of the Finance department come out in public is quite another.

The Conservatives had ambitions to “clean up government” when they took power in 2006. They seem to have further centralized power in the PMO and gone farther than any other government in trying to keep important facts from the public.

Unfortunately, we face the same issues in the Yukon. We don’t even have an independent Yukon budget office. MLAs and their staffs often do not have a background in budget analysis and public accounting (who does?).

You can read the results in the auditor general’s report on the Dawson City and Watson Lake hospitals. You can search in vain on the Yukon government website for coherent, fact-based analysis of the costs and benefits of these projects. Or even the operational, budget and staffing plan for how the Yukon Hospital Corporation intends to run those facilities.

It was the same with the F.H. Collins omnishambles. Look on the Yukon government or F.H. Collins websites. See if you can find the business case for how spending over $50 million would improve educational outcomes in any kind of measured or tangible way.

You’ll find various documents with hand-waving about 21st-century educational architecture and so on, but not many hard facts. Whatever analysis exists is locked away in the management board secretariat, safe from the eyes of the citizenry.

Even figuring out exactly how many millions the government spent on the first redesign before cancelling it is a challenge.

Auditor general reports on Yukon government departments tend to be harsh. But auditor general reports are about the past. We really need an independent Yukon budget office to force ministers and officials to have these conversations before they spend the money.

As for our federal government, we have only one MP and he mostly seems interested in backing the PMO, no questions asked (other than pre-scripted ones for Question Period provided by the PMO itself!).

But next time you see him, ask him if he’ll support Kevin Page being replaced by another strong and independent voice.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.