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Think tank lays out ways Liberals can ease concerns over proposed PBO changes

Kevin Page during an interview in his office in Ottawa, on March 21, 2013. A think tank led by former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page has laid out some advice for the Trudeau government on how to make the federal watchdog truly independent.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

A think tank led by former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page has laid out some advice for the Trudeau government on how to make the federal watchdog truly independent.

The list of recommendations from Page's team at the University of Ottawa comes amid concerns that proposed legislation introduced last week to transform the PBO would hurt its independence.

The government is proposing expanded powers as well as new restrictions for the PBO, which is designed to serve parliamentarians as an non-partisan check on the management of government finances.

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A paper released by Page's Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy praises proposed changes that would make the PBO an officer of Parliament, extend the tenure to seven years and give parliamentarians a role in selecting the officer.

However, it says the legislation falls short of the government's vow to strengthen the PBO's independence and will even weaken the office in some respects.

The institute recommends the proposal be amended so the PBO may continue to freely publish its findings in public without undergoing review by government officials, elected or not. It also says Ottawa should overturn changes that would require the PBO to submit its annual work plans to the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons for approval.

"Requiring approval of its work plan by the Speakers, other political actors, or civil servants, undermines the ability of the PBO to undertake proactive, objective analysis and risks political or other interference, or the perception of interference, in the delivery of its analysis," reads the document, which was prepared by Helaina Gaspard.

The paper also calls for the legislation to provide the PBO with enough resources and access to data to allow it to execute its mandate. It also recommends internal and external evaluations for the office and requirements that any future appointee have expertise in federal budgeting as well as fiscal and economic analysis.

The government has argued the changes would make the PBO more independent regardless of the government in power by, among other things, making it an officer of Parliament.

A spokesman for government House leader Bardish Chagger has said the Liberals are "open to amendments on how to further improve the proposed legislation so that it accomplishes the goal of an independent PBO."

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Last week, Page, who served as Canada's first PBO from 2008 until 2013, said he was concerned that some of the constraints could actually "really limit the quote unquote independence of the office in practice."

"That could be a really big price," he said after first reading about the proposed changes, which were contained in the so-called budget implementation act.

Rona Ambrose, Tom Mulcair slam federal budget (The Canadian Press)
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