On Thursday evening 300 people packed a University of Victoria room in BC and more than 1000 others watched online as the Green Party live-streamed Kevin Page’s talk about the state of financial transparency, parliamentary accountability, and good government in Canada.
As Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), Page was hired in 2006 by the in-coming Conservatives via the Federal Accountability Act to provide independent financial analysis to the Canadian Parliament and to the Canadian people on government spending in the aftermath of the Liberal sponsorship scandal.
A humble man from Thunder Bay, Page likes independence. He likes number crunching. And until the end of his term, March 22, 2013, he loved his work as PBO. He said so in the live steam I watched online, but it showed in his steadfast commitment to release true cost estimates regarding the nearly $29.3B F-35 fighter jet purchase, estimated by the defence department at $9B. Then again when the PBO revealed there was a cost of extending our involvement in the Afghanistan war. And who can forget the embarrassment the PBO caused the Conservatives trying to scare us into thinking Old Age Security was unsustainable?
Transparency is a trust-building tool Page is willing to fight for. What we have right now he called, “simulated transparency,” which aims to confuse rather than enlighten members of parliament and the public. It begins with a money trail “designed to be dysfunctional,” he explained. Otherwise, parliamentary documents, including the budget, would align to allow scrutinization; but as it stands it’s difficult for parliamentarians to do their job and protect the purse.
For example, on the Truth and Sentencing Act, Page was told there was no cost. And no one was delving into the issue until the PBO went to Statistics Canada and started sniffing about. Even the provinces (where the responsibility lies for administering the Criminal Code change) had not investigated the cost. No surprise then that members of the Senate and Parliament initially wanted the work of the PBO kept confidential. Page, however, said, “I will do nothing confidential.”
It is this commitment to transparency that motivates people to participate in politics. And no doubt it motivated one choked up 33-year old audience member to stand up at the end of this first presentation in the Saanich Gulf Islands Green Party’s Eminent Canadian Speaker’s Series, to plea for government he can believe in. He said he “wants to believe” in our democracy, and rallies his peers to do the same, drawing applause from the audience which seemed to share his sentiments. The unspoken fear, however, is that government actions, such as silencing the PBO, might derail hopefuls like him.
This fear makes Page’s current PBO fight even more important. In federal court he must show that contrary to the Conservatives’ statements, he has not exceed his mandate, and Page, at times funny, confessional, and speaking earnestly, inspires belief. He acknowledges that this fight, with a Conservative party which once in power felt it acceptable to water down accountability and transparency, may be long; But he expects to win. His mandate is in the Federal Accountability Act. He knows it well.
If he’s courageous enough to fight secrecy and obfuscation, Canadians should support him. Information is nothing to fear, and as Page points out, accurate information underlies fact-based decisions. Should we expect less from government?
No! And wouldn’t it be wonderful if all parliamentarians would say, as Page did, “Hold me accountable!” Or at the least, we expect his successor to say the same, if, as is currently the Prime Minister’s right, he choses to appoint a new PBO.
Too bad Page didn’t manage to fix the PBO appointment process so that the PBO is appointed by parliament, and only dismissed with cause. If as he said, “the work is shoddy or the analysis is weak,” indeed, hold him accountable. He understands that only good work will ensure independence, longevity, and a thriving democracy.
In line with his commitment to accountability, Page is not afraid of the media, and suggests a stronger media presence allows for better scrutiny of parliament.
Reflecting on his can-do attitude, it’s sobering to realize that he lost his 20 year old son just as the job came about. He could’ve turned it down in grief and anger at life. But he told us that the tragedy helped him see that he was perfect for the job of PBO. He felt then that he had nothing to lose, and with a great team, could, as a civil servant, furnish Canadians with valuable information. He did good work, and we know, too, that he had more than enough spirit (even without the focus tragedy triggers) and a supportive wife whom we also have to thank for encouraging him to persist.
Canada is losing someone valuable now; but hopefully we too can make the best of a loss. Recognizing it is the first step, and we seem to be doing that, taking for example Gary Corbett’s comments in a Toronto Star editorial, where he called Page a national hero. And many respondents agreed. But let’s not fence him in. Page’s case is a test of whether Canada lives up to the demands of the often trumpeted and war re-enforcing word: democracy, and so he is a person of international significance, possibly heroic in the heart of everyone who needs someone to speak truth to power.
As such, Green Party leader, and Saanich Gulf Islands MP, Elizabeth May, at the end of the talk was moved to lead the audience in singing, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” He is indeed. Thanks Kevin Page, for remaining accessible, showing us what’s required, and leading Canada to the top of that mountain called good governance!
Read his letter to Canadians published in the Toronto Star, April 1, 2013: Kevin Page: Why being Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer ‘may have saved my life’