The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau is betraying mixed feelings about the Parliamentary Budget Officer. On the one hand, it wants to make the PBO an independent officer of Parliament, similar to the Auditor-General and the Ethics Commissioner. That's a great idea.
But at the same time, the Trudeau government intends to grant it none of the access-to-information privileges available to the other independent watchdogs that oversee Parliament. It also seems intent on limiting the ability of MPs and senators to ask the PBO for assessments of new government proposals.
And, if all its reforms go through as is, the government risks politicizing the office of the PBO by letting the parties use it to assess their election platforms and those of their opponents.
This, anyway, is the assessment of the current PBO, Jean-Denis Fréchette. Mr. Fréchette lays out his damning analysis in a report on the effects of the government's proposals to restructure his office. The reforms are part of the Liberals' omnibus budget bill, C-44, tabled last month.
It is hard to dispute Mr. Fréchette's analysis. There is an ominous lack of clarity and precision in the government's proposals.
For instance, in its current status as part of the Library of Parliament, the office of the PBO can ask a parliamentary committee to intervene and force a recalcitrant department to provide information that it has requested.
If the PBO becomes independent and is no longer part of the library, it will lose that remedy. The government's bill doesn't mention any alternative remedy, which means departments will be able to deny the PBO access to information without consequence. This is a suspicious thing for the bill to be silent about.
The Auditor-General, on the other hand, has the power to get the information it wants. It also has access to tax information from the Canada Revenue Agency, to some cabinet memoranda, and to classified Defence Department information related to procurements – information that is critical to the PBO's mission. But none of this will be available to Mr. Fréchette, which means he and his office could be reduced to working only with information that is already public.
The proposed changes will also oblige the PBO to provide an annual work plan to the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons. On the surface, this appears to handcuff the PBO by making it difficult for him to change direction quickly midyear, when unplanned events inevitably arise. There is no mechanism in the proposed changes that would oblige the Speakers to respond quickly, or even at all, to a request to, for instance, purchase the data needed to analyze proposed health legislation, even if that request came from a standing committee.
The changes could also mean that, when an MP asks the office of the PBO to cost a new government proposal that wasn't in the work plan, one of the two Speakers could prevent it from being done by refusing to allocate the resources. Mr. Fréchette worries about being unable to respond quickly and effectively in the event of a natural disaster, a sudden economic slump or the unexpected deployment of troops overseas (his examples).
This is extremely problematic. The office of the PBO was created by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper in 2006 as part of his mandate to make Ottawa more accountable. Its critical role is to provide parliamentarians with timely, non-partisan analyses of government spending.
Mr. Harper soon came to rue his initiative, most notably when the former PBO, Kevin Page, published damning reports about the Conservative government's ill-conceived plans to acquire F-35 fighter jets, and about its inaccurate contention that the controversial Truth in Sentencing Act would only cost an additional $2-billion. (Mr. Page's analysis showed that the cost would be closer to $5-billion.)
Both those reports were embarrassing for the government, but they were critical to the healthy functioning of our democracy. And they arguably could only have come from the office of the PBO. The Auditor-General, for instance, tends to analyze government spending after the fact, but a properly functioning PBO that is unimpeded by partisan interests can send up a warning signal before the government commits to spending that we all regret.
Mr. Fréchette is arguing that he won't be able to produce a report like the ones on the F-35s or the Truth in Sentencing Act, if the Liberals' proposals are adopted. If that proved to be true, it would amount to a terrible betrayal of Parliament and of Canadians.
Mr. Trudeau came to power promising to move Canada forward, and to be transparent. His plans for the PBO are the exact opposite of that. The Trudeau government needs to listen carefully to Mr. Fréchette and to other critics as Bill C-44 moves through committee, and to amend it accordingly.