Chris Aylward

Conservative accountability


The headline says it all: “Conservatives defeat NDP bill to make PBO independent, accountable.”

The PBO is the Parliamentary Budget Officer, whom I have mentioned in a previous post. “Accountable” means that the PBO would have reported to Parliament, not, as is presently the case, to the Library of Parliament.

A little history: In 2006, Stephen Harper was first elected, in part because he promised the country a new era of accountability. He had a Financial Accountability Act passed in short order, but the follow-through was iffy. He tried to shoehorn long-time Conservative Party supporter Gwyn Morgan into the position of Chair of a new Public Appointments Commission that was supposed to screen out patronage appointments—somewhat ironic, to put it mildly. Those were the Conservative minority days, however, and the opposition parties nixed Morgan’s appointment. Harper abruptly scrapped the Commission, indicating his skin-deep attachment to accountability.

The first Parliamentary Budget Officer was Kevin Page. He tried with might and main to do the job he thought he’d been assigned, but ran into roadblocks at every turn. The Conservatives were hoping for a lapdog, not a watchdog. The Liberals didn’t like him either.

But Page was fearless. He went after the ballooning costs of the Afghan war, the F-35 jets, and a bunch of new prisons the Conservatives wanted. He challenged Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s claim that Canada would be spared the effects of the 2008 global recession.

He acted, in other words, like the independent watchdog he thought he’d been appointed to be.

His reward? The Conservatives first tried to cut his budget—but retreated under threat. Then they tried to limit the scope of his reports. Finally they simply refused to give him the information he needed to do his job, forcing him to go to the federal courts. The case was dismissed on a technicality this past April, but Page won his main point.

(That information would have indicated where the current wave of departmental cuts would fall. Instead, countless federal public workers have been spending stressful months wondering if they are next.)

Now, this is a long backstory for what happened earlier this week. The Leader of the Opposition, Tom Mulcair, presented a Private Member’s Bill to make the office of the PBO a truly independent one. The bill would have made the PBO an officer of Parliament—like the Auditor General, for example, or the Chief Electoral Officer, or the Privacy Commissioner. The latter all report directly to Parliament, and are walled off from political interference.

This was supposed to be a free vote, but every single Conservative in the House voted against it. In fact the vote divided along party lines on both sides of the house. Opposition parties wanted an independent, accountable PBO. The Conservatives did not. And to add fuel to the flames, the committee presently looking at Page’s replacement includes Conservative government House leader Peter Van Loan’s Chief of Staff.

The Opposition, to its credit, has been fighting for an independent budget watchdog for some time. NDP finance critic Peggy Nash tabled a bill in 2011 that would have accomplished this. The Conservatives defeated it. Earlier this year, she raised a motion in the House to improve PBO independence and extend Page’s mandate until a suitable replacement could be found. The Conservatives sank that one, too.

While the government is presently proceeding to choose a tame replacement PBO behind closed doors, it is encouraging—in fact, it was a pleasant surprise—to learn that the government-appointed interim PBO, Sonia L’Heureux, is continuing to demand the missing information on the departmental budget cuts, armed with the court ruling in April. Whether she succeeds before a permanent PBO is found, however, is up in the air.

In spite of all the positive pressure for transparency, openness and accountability, the Harper government at this point still has the upper hand, as we have just seen by the vote tally on Mulcair’s bill—148-131. As always, it prefers to work in the dark, unimpeded and unaccountable. So here’s hoping the Opposition continues to keep the pressure on. After all, as the Conservatives once said, the public does have the right to know.

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This page contains a single entry by Chris Aylward published on June 14, 2013 8:29 AM.

Performing appraisals was the previous entry in this blog.

Shenanigans on the Hill: an update is the next entry in this blog.

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