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Harper wants lapdogs, claims of transparency

You can bet there were no parting gifts – and certainly no tears – as Stephen Harper watched Kevin Page leave his post as Parliamentary Budget Officer last week.

Although Page was appointed by Harper, who created the position, the former PBO has not been a favourite of the prime minister given the often-critical reports that have come out of the office in the last six years. Page routinely took the Conservatives to task for inadequate, incomplete and outright incorrect budget numbers, exposing the government as incompetents … and worse.

You can also bet Harper has no plans to replace Page with anyone other than a compliant toady.

Thus far there’s been no effort to find a new PBO, despite the fact the Conservatives have long known they were letting Page’s term expire. Instead, they’ve appointed the Parliamentary Librarian as the interim PBO. Aside from the effectiveness of that appointment – we’ve got every right to be skeptical – there’s also the issue of legality. According to government watchdog Democracy Watch, the move is clearly illegal, as the legislation makes no provision for interim measures.

“The federal Conservatives were negligent in not ensuring the appointment of a new Parliamentary Budget Officer before Kevin Page’s term finished last week, and the law does not allow for the appointment of an interim PBO,” says Tyler Sommers, the organization’s coordinator.

“The reality is they’re not taking this seriously,” he adds down the line from his Ottawa office.

To give the issue more weight, Democracy Watch will take the government to court over the interim appointment. It’s also launched a national letter-writing campaign to make the PBO a fully independent and fully empowered watchdog.

Overturning the interim measures are a first step. Replacing Page with someone credible and effective will be a bigger hurdle still, as the government was clearly unprepared for the critical reports from the PBO and has no intention of being open and honest with the public.

“They’re doing what they can to ensure that there’s not another Kevin Page in the position,” says Sommers of the Harper government’s handling of the file.

Page’s effectiveness to find government budgeting faults – intentional or otherwise – earned him Harper’s scorn, but great public support. We believe Page, not Harper.

Any government criticism directed at Page was always self-serving, designed to downplay the PBO’s findings, which inevitably turned out to be much more accurate – i.e. truthful – than was the Conservatives were feeding us. That scenario has played out under the Harper government many times, from run-ins with the Auditor General through to the Ethics Commissioner, with the Conservatives continually in the wrong.

“All the PBO has been doing is a good job,” says Sommers, noting Page’s assessments had proven correct time and time again as he challenged the government’s numbers.

Along with a proper PBO, Democracy Watch wants to see the position strengthened to make it yet more effective.

The PBO must be made a full Officer of Parliament, independent of Cabinet, with a fixed, non-renewable term of office and full power over the selection and management of their staff, says the group. As well, the selection of the PBO must be approved by a majority of party leaders after a public, merit-based nomination process to ensure a non-partisan and effective person is selected; the PBO must be given the resources needed to fulfill their mandate each year (based on an independent needs assessment of their proposed budget); the government must be required, before proposing significant spending, to check with the PBO to ensure that the actual total of the proposed spending is being accurately estimated; the PBO must be given the power to order the disclosure of any information (as the information commissioners have in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec) they need to do their cost and spending assessments, and; the PBO must be required to release the findings of their investigations as soon as they are completed whether or not parliament is in session.

Sommers won’t be holding his breath for those changes: the government appears to have no intention of being open and transparent, pledges to the contrary. But we do live in a democracy, so public pressure can be brought to bear, which is where the letter-writing campaign comes into play.

“The public wants independent watchdogs who aren’t lapdogs,” he maintains, noting that if enough of us make our views known, the government will pay attention.

“We need to give politicians a good shove in the right direction.”

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