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A budget watchdog without bite is no watchdog at all

In a perfect world, Ottawa wouldn't need Kevin Page. But in the befuddling realm of federal government finances it's hard to imagine life without Parliament's first financial watchdog.

Mr. Page is two months away from the end of a stormy five-year term as Parliamentary Budget Officer, and the government is dragging its feet on naming a new one. When it does, the Conservative government will be looking for someone with less bite – more of a lap poodle than a pit bull.

Speaking recently on Global TV's The West Block, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the government created the PBO because it wanted a "sounding board" for Parliament. And it hasn't been getting that from Mr. Page, whom he accused of "wandering" from his mandate.

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The Conservatives should be careful what they wish for. They might miss Mr. Page when he's gone. As Mr. Page put it in a 2011 interview: "For watchdogs, you don't want puppies."

The Conservatives clearly underestimated how far the low-key career bureaucrat would go in shining a light on the government's books. Mr. Page has doggedly pressed the government to come clean on the true cost of major purchases, such as the F-35 fighter jets, prisons and infrastructure.

He has demanded more information from departments on sweeping budget cuts, even going to court to seek a ruling on the limits of his powers. He's also suggested the government is overestimating the size of the deficit.

And most embarrassing to a government whose control of communications borders on the paranoid, Mr. Page does what Ottawa bureaucrats seldom do any more – he speaks his mind. He regularly talks to reporters, makes the rounds of TV news channels and speaks at conferences.

And he makes himself available to answer endless questions from MPs, Parliamentary committees and government officials. Mr. Page's quest for profile serves two purposes.

First, he's determined to bring more clarity and transparency to murky government finances.

Second, it's also about self-preservation. The higher his profile, he reasons, the more difficult it will be for the government to neuter his office, particularly when he's gone. So he keeps talking.

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"You can't be invisible when you're trying to establish something," Mr. Page explained in a 2011 interview.

The government hasn't been amused. Top cabinet ministers have attacked Mr. Page's integrity and accused him of overstepping his bounds. Mr. Flaherty has called his work on the sustainability of the Old Age Security regime "unbelievable, unreliable, incredible." And Ottawa is fighting his attempt to clarify his powers in the court.

Many Conservatives suspect worse – that Mr. Page has partisan motives, a charge he vehemently denies.

But that's a side show. The Conservatives will be in opposition again eventually. When that day comes, they'll crave the PBO's unvarnished analysis of how the government is spending taxpayers' money.

The PBO also acts as a watchdog over the vast bureaucracy that controls so much of government. If he is doing his job, the PBO can be as valuable to the government of the day as he is to opposition MPs.

Federal financial reporting has become so murky, inconsistent and retrospective that it's almost impossible for an outsider to get a clear picture of what is actually being spent, or cut. Multiple and overlapping reports are produced using different accounting methodologies. Money not spent in one year is quietly shifted into another, conveniently creating moveable baselines for advertised "cuts."

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Things are so muddled that Mr. Page and the Conservatives can't even agree on how many people work for the federal government to establish the cost of the civil service. The government's audited books show 375,500, as Mr. Page points out. Treasury Board President Tony Clement insists it's 420,000.

The Conservatives might also recall that they created the PBO soon after taking power in 2006 partly as a counterweight to what they suspected was chronic understating of the budget surplus for political gain by the former Liberal government.

The rationale is as valid today as it was then, even now that the surplus is a deficit.

Parliament can't function if the people elected to authorize what the government spends don't have the facts to do their job. If MPs from all parties can't figure this stuff out – and they can't – what hope is there for the rest of us?

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More


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