It has a ring of poetic justice to it. In the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal, the federal Conservatives, then in opposition, called for the establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Office — an independent voice who would serve Parliament, get to the bottom of spending and budgets and provide much-needed information to MPs.
When elected in 2006, the Harper Conservatives lived up to their promise and created the parliamentary budget officer (PBO), gave the PBO legislative powers and pretty much ever since have tried to stymie the PBO at every turn.
But Kevin Page will not be deterred. He is, in a word, relentless in the pursuit of the truth and in his belief in Canadians’ right to know. What a concept. Imagine, believing that Canadians have a right to know how their government spends tax dollars or how it plans to implement its budgetary austerity. What heresy!
Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the PBO believes transparency and accountability are more than political campaign slogans.
He has been singular and dogged in his quest to simply do his job.
According to the PBO’s website, its mandate is to “provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation’s finances, the government’s estimates and trends in the Canadian economy; and upon request from a committee or parliamentarian, to estimate the financial cost of any proposal for matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction.” That would include budgets and austerity plans, something Mr. Page has requested from all federal departments.
Treasury Board president Tony Clement’s condemnation of Mr. Page acting outside his mandate is more than an attempt to muddy the waters. It is rather another example of what we have learned to expect from this government: discredit, deny, lie, confuse, attack and maintain secrecy.
Mr. Page, though, is unfazed in the face of these political games. He is unfazed even when the attack dogs are let loose on him. The Harper Conservatives have met their match. It’s called integrity.
Mr. Page has had several run-ins with the Harper government. The latest involves his repeated request for information about how departments will cut budgets. He notes that this information is necessary for Parliamentarians to do their job. Yeah, not to mention that Canadians should know what services they depend on are being gutted and slashed.
He wrote federal departments on three separate occasions in 2012, in April, May and October. He has also written the clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters, three times asking for the information so that he could perform his “legislative mandate.”
By the middle of last week, less than a quarter of departments had responded to Mr. Page’s request for information, according to information on the PBO’s website. About 50 per cent said they would meet the PBO’s deadline (which was yesterday), but another 20 departments, including Treasury Board, had refused to respond to the PBO’s request.
Neither had the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is facing significant cuts to its budget and is also trying to deal with the country’s largest food safety recall.
Mr. Page has threatened to take the departments to federal court if they do not comply. In response, the Treasury Board president has been rattling his sabre, seeming to relish a court date with the PBO.
American Pulitzer Prize winner Pearl S. Buck once wrote: “we need to restore the meaning of that old word, duty. It is the other side of rights.”
Clement and his colleagues may rue the day they created the PBO or at the very least hired someone with Mr. Page’s sense of duty and rights.
Indeed, this latest showdown is merely an attempt by the PBO to have the federal departments explain their austerity plans. In his mind, Canadians — through Parliament — have a right to know who and what is being cut from their public service.
This is no doubt a challenge for a government that likes to hyper-control the flow of information and what information gets released and when to Canadians.
Integrity versus duplicity. Duty and service versus a blatant disregard for both. Mahatma Gandhi said “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Mr. Page, perhaps, has found in serving others that he has found himself and his calling. His political masters? Not so much. They are lost in their own political machinations and have clearly forgotten, if they ever had it in the first place, the real meaning of service, duty and responsibility.
Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column returns Nov. 3.