When Kevin Page, Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer, steps down next month after five years on the job, he’ll do so with a respect and admiration accorded few professional public servants – not because he went above and beyond the call of duty (many do) or because he has been particularly outspoken on public matters (many are, especially whistleblowers), but because, like most professionals in the public service, he doggedly maintains that government should tell the truth, even when it refuses to do so.
The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) was created following the 2006 federal election, in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal. It has not been an easy ride for Page, the public service and the people of Canada. Although the PBO should be independent, it serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. In effect, the PBO watches over the spending of the person who created it. That in a nutshell is the problem.
On the matter of the government’s annual deficit, the government claimed it would be $30 billion. Page said it was $56 billion. Page was right. War, never an inexpensive proposition. The government claimed the Afghanistan mission would cost $2.8 billion. Page said it was closer to $9 billion. Page was right. Who can forget those F-35 jets? The government said the jets would cost $15 billion. The PBO, after exposing some financial finagling by the government that conveniently left out decades of maintenance costs, said the jets would cost $40 billion. Once again, Page was right.
None of these attempts to speak truth to power have endeared Page to the Prime Minister who hired him, and who likely expected he would, if not toe the party line, at least not rock the ship of state.
But the real test of honesty and integrity has come with the implementation of the Harper government’s austerity cuts. Can’t afford to maintain Old Age Security benefits for 65-year-olds? Well, actually, yes we can, said Page.
Throughout the past year, the government has insisted that the cuts will affect only “the back office.” Frontline services, presumably health, safety and protection of the environment, won’t be touched. Page’s assessment of the government’s own numbers has repeatedly thrown cold water on these claims. In return, he has received the kind of chill the Conservatives reserve for their worst enemies. His requests for more information have gone unanswered or faced interminable delay. His calculations have been dismissed out of hand or publicly called into question. His role and reputation as a watchdog were attacked with an intensity usually reserved for environmentalists. Even taking the government to court to reveal details of its proposed cuts and expenses has met mostly with a deafening silence.
It’s not just the numbers, it’s what the numbers say. Their consequences speak to the value of Page’s contribution to current debates.
In November 2012, seven months after the government introduced its austerity budget, the PBO could still find specific information on only 500 of the 19,200 jobs to be eliminated (7,000 are supposed to be lost through attrition). How, for example, will the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ensure compliance with federal regulations on food safety while crash dieting on $19 million in cuts? How will the $46 million cut from Aboriginal Affairs address the concerns of communities now responding to the Idle No More movement? How will Health Canada triage the enormous cuts to its own programs? The government waves these worries away with the easy phrase “operational efficiencies.”
Some things no longer exist simply because, to Conservatives if to no one else, they have ceased to matter. Science and the environment have come in for particular attention. The Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned freshwater research facility that proved the effects of acid rain and has been instrumental in developing environmental policy, is eliminated. Environment Canada labs dedicated to studying cancer-causing pollution emissions from smokestacks are shut down. Nor should anyone forget the loss of Statistics Canada’s long-form census to current and future knowledge. Evidence is the new enemy.
It says something about the times we live in that a government can be elected to power on the promise of greater accountability, appoint a watchdog to ensure that accountability, and then delay, debate and discredit that watchdog’s attempts to ensure accountability at every turn. But if Parliament and the people of Canada never learn the true cost to taxpayers and to the country of the Harper government’s austerity cuts, it won’t be the fault or on the watch of Kevin Page. To his credit, Page has done what the job demanded. And that should leave us worried about his replacement, if indeed a replacement is ever found. Unsurprisingly, the process is delayed.
George Orwell once wrote: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Kevin Page is not a revolutionary, but if telling truth to power and, more importantly, insisting that powerful elected governments tell the truth to those who elect them are heroic acts, then Kevin Page is a national hero.
Gary Corbett is President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
Photo Credit: Digital Journal