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Ottawa takes real steps toward building a better Parliament

Somewhat overlooked in the Trudeau government's fiscal update on Tuesday were a series of measures that, if implemented as promised, will go a long way toward remedying the sorry state of Parliament's oversight of the public purse.

One of the measures is particularly striking. The government says it will make the Parliamentary Budget Officer an independent officer of Parliament. This will put the PBO on a par with the auditor-general, which means he or she will be able to order the government to turn over documents that previous governments have been reluctant to share.

It also means the PBO will be appointed for a fixed term and no longer serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.

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These are much-needed and meaningful changes. Kevin Page, the former PBO who openly warred with the Harper government over its refusal to hand over the documents he needed to do his job, praised the proposal. "It's a big day for the parliamentary budget office," he said.

The PBO will additionally be given the mandate to cost parties' election platforms upon request, something that might persuade politicians to make realistic campaign promises.

The government is also going to introduce legislation to reinforce the independence of Statistics Canada and its chief statistician. That independence is currently a matter of convention, not law. This change will help ensure that experts, not politicians, are deciding what data are available when government sets policy.

Finally, the government says it will "better sequence the budget and main estimates." How that plays out remains to be seen. But the current sequence is bad to the point of absurdity, with spending estimates usually coming before the budget, and in a different accounting format, rendering them virtually meaningless. It's a discredited practice that has only served to keep MPs in the dark about how tax dollars are being spent. Almost any improvement will be welcome.

Parliament exists to hold government to account, a role that has been critically diminished in age of the all-powerful Prime Minister's Office. It is to this government's credit that it is willing to propose changes that will challenge its dominance.

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