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Budget watchdog lacks credibility, not cash: Jim Flaherty

Jim Flaherty says extra cash for the Parliamentary Budget Office would not fix his ongoing beef with Kevin Page.

Disagreements between the Finance Minister and the Parliamentary Budget Officer were a recurring theme throughout 2010. As the year went on, Mr. Page received increasingly terse responses from government in response to some of his main conclusions. Among them, he predicted Conservative crime legislation will force Ottawa to double its spending on prisons; he warned there's an 85-per-cent chance that Ottawa will miss its target for balancing the books by 2015; and he questioned the effectiveness of federal infrastructure spending when it comes to creating jobs.

Since the Harper government created the PBO in 2008 as a division of the Parliamentary Library, there has been much debate about the adequacy of the office's roughly $2.8-million budget, which covers a staff of about a dozen employees. The office has a legislated mandate to provide Parliament with independent analysis "about the state of the nation's finances, the estimates of the government and trends in the national economy" and to conduct research at the request of MPs and Senators.

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But Mr. Flaherty said he believes Mr. Page goes too far with his opinions and a larger budget won't change that.

"I actually don't think it's a funding issue at all. It's a question of creating quality work and improving the credibility of his office," he said in a year-end interview with the Globe and Mail.

Mr. Flaherty noted that it is ultimately MPs and Senators who decide how much of the budget for Parliament goes to the PBO.

"I'm happy to have a discussion with him, but I can't operate on the basis that he does, where he says 'Well, they won't be able to meet the goals that they've set out.' It's actually up to us to make those decisions. If we say we're going to control spending in the Department of National Defence, for example, well, we're doing that. If he makes the assumption that we're not going to be able to control spending, then of course he can come to whatever conclusions he wants, but those statements by him are not based on anything but his opinion."

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities also took exception this year with Mr. Page's comments, questioning his conlusion - based on a PBO survey - that infrastructure spending didn't create many jobs.

But Stephen Gordon, a professor of economics at Laval University, said the PBO's budget is "pitiful" and Mr. Flaherty can't have it both ways.

"They do remarkably well for what little they have," he said. "If Mr. Flaherty isn't happy with the work that the PBO is doing, they should give them more money and more resources so they can do better work."

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Mr. Page, a public servant who used to work at the Finance Department, said he is concerned by the personal tone of the criticism coming from Mr. Flaherty. He says he requested a meeting with the minister in early December to discuss the PBO's work but has not received a response.

"I actually kind of like him, to be honest, on a personal basis. Mr. Flaherty's a nice person. I think if he sat down, if he wants to, he'd understand a little bit more clearly what we do. It's really important that not only our work be of high quality, but that it is perceived to be of high quality," he said. "I'm very proud of the work that we do."

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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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