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Budget officer vows to report without Parliament

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page


Prorogation will not silence Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, who plans to release three substantive reports in the run-up to the March budget.

Through a quirk - or, more accurately - complete silence in the rules when it comes to the conduct of his fledgling office during a prorogation, Mr. Page says nothing stops him from continuing with his work. As a result, his reports will provide a rare flurry of activity in a quiet, snow-covered parliamentary precinct scheduled to remain idle for 11 straight weeks.

With key decisions to be made as to the content of the 2010 budget, Mr. Page says he owes it to MPs to publish these reports while they are still timely.

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His office is a creation of the Conservative government, but MPs and senators on both sides of the floor have bristled at times in response to Mr. Page's strong independent streak. His next report, which could come out as early as next week, will explore an issue Finance Minister Jim Flaherty doesn't want to talk about.

It will provide an in-depth analysis in support of the view that Canada faces a "structural" deficit - meaning the country will be stuck in the red even when the economy bounces back.

It is a conclusion that strikes at the core of one of the Conservative government's most cherished accomplishments: slashing the goods and services tax rate to 5 per cent from 7 per cent. Each percentage point cut in the GST is estimated to cost the government about $6-billion in revenues.

But Mr. Page says the government has yet to come to grips with the revenue loss created by these and other tax cuts, leaving a future gap that has so far not been addressed.

In a November report, Mr. Page pegged this gap at $18.9-billion for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. His next report will provide more context to this finding, including how Canada's aging population will affect government revenues.

Mr. Flaherty consistently dismisses concerns regarding a structural deficit, insisting that phasing out the short-term stimulus and reining in routine spending - combined with a growing economy - will be enough to balance the books.

Also before March, Mr. Page's office will release a report updating projections for government revenues, as well as a report probing the dollars going in and out of Canada's employment insurance program.

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A parliamentary committee advised Mr. Page last year not to release reports during election campaigns, but there are no rules as to how the relatively new office should conduct itself during a prorogation.

As a result, Mr. Page devised his own policy. He will not release any reports on research requested by parliamentary committees or MPs. However, his larger studies conducted independently of such requests will be released.

"Our objective is to ensure parliamentarians have timely access to relevant analysis," Mr. Page told The Globe and Mail. "The government has not provided their own estimates of the structural balance or the impact of aging demographics on federal finances. In this respect, we are not providing a critique, but adding to the analysis required to have a thoughtful debate about the fiscal planning environment when Parliament resumes."

The fact that Mr. Page is able to release such reports is due to the unique structure of his office. The Parliamentary Budget Office operates as a division of the Library of Parliament. Mr. Page has expressed concern about this arrangement, arguing that he should be an independent Officer of Parliament. There are currently eight such officers - including the Auditor-General, the Privacy Commissioner and the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.

However, these officers must table their reports in Parliament before commenting on them. Since Parliament does not sit during a prorogation, they are effectively silenced. Mr. Page, on the other hand, can simply post his reports online. He said his office will also provide background briefings to interested MPs, members of the media and government officials when he releases his next report on the topic of a structural deficit.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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