House of Commons Hansard #101 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was tax.

Topics

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

11 a.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

moved that Bill C-572, An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Parliamentary Budget Officer), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from Windsor—Tecumseh for seconding the bill.

In the election campaign of 2005-06, the Conservative Party put forward a number of initiatives on accountability. After that election, a legislative committee was struck and Bill C-2 was presented. It was an omnibus bill. There were many different initiatives in it. Our party supported a good lion's share of the initiatives. All parliamentarians worked very hard on that bill to ensure that the ideas put forward in the election campaign, such as the New Democratic Party's ethics package to bring transparency and accountability to Parliament, and the initiatives of the Conservative Party, would be put into place. That would have strengthened oversight in terms of the governing party.

Part of that was to ensure that we had truth in advertising. Perhaps I can quote from the Conservative Party platform of 2006:

Ensure truth in budgeting with a Parliamentary Budget Authority

In the spring of 2004, the Liberal government told Canadians that the 2003-04 surplus would only be $1.9 billion. In fact, it was $9.1 billion. In 2004-05, the Liberals spent about $9 billion at the end of the year to reduce their surplus to only $1.6 billion.

There were differences between the projected surplus and what was actually announced by the then Liberal government.

The Conservatives went on in their platform to say that they would create an independent budget office that would have independent overview of the finances of the nation. We supported that. We thought that was the way to go. We thought it was a progressive thing to do for transparency and accountability in government.

That begs the question of why this bill is needed. If this office had been created and the Parliamentary Budget Officer had been nominated and functioning, why would this bill be needed?

It took a while to get the office up and running. Many of us had concerns from the beginning as to where this office would be and the independence of the office and the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

If I were to ask Canadians from coast to coast to coast if they thought the Parliamentary Budget Officer was an independent officer of Parliament, most people would say that makes sense. The nomenclature suggests that the officer would be an officer of Parliament, but sadly, that is not the case. This bill seeks to ensure that it is the case.

The intent of the bill is to ensure that the Parliamentary Budget Officer is independent. Like other officers of Parliament, the Parliamentary Budget Officer would be given a mandate that does not just state that the position is one of an officer, but actually in function the position will be an independent officer of Parliament. This complements the initial initiative of the government to have this office.

The bill would take the Parliamentary Budget Officer out of the scope and ambit of the Library of Parliament and make it a stand-alone officer similar to the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. Currently appointment is made by the Governor in Council from a list of three suggestions from the library committee. Instead, with this bill, after consultation with leaders of every recognized party in the House of Commons and approval of the appointment by resolution of Parliament, the Parliamentary Budget Officer would be named. This is exactly the same as how we appoint the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner and other independent officers of Parliament.

The bill would include in law the qualifications for the Parliamentary Budget Officer, namely, experience and knowledge of the federal budget process and appropriate educational background, including a graduate degree in economics and/or financing and accounting.

Currently there is no legislated rule on tenure. We put that in the bill. The bill would set the tenure at seven years, with the possibility of reappointment and the possibility of removal by Governor in Council. It would also create possibilities in law for interim appointments. That is obvious, if there is a need for that.

The bill states that the Parliamentary Budget Officer would have to be independent of any other employment. It would give the Parliamentary Budget Officer the rank of a deputy head of a government department. Again, this is a rank similar to the Chief Librarian or to the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.

The bill would not make any fundamental change to the mandate, but it would qualify that the Parliamentary Budget Officer products should be independent. In other words, the Parliamentary Budget Office cannot become a reproduction service. The office has to provide independent analysis.

With regard to the release of reports, currently there is nothing guiding the process of releasing the reports. New legislation would give the Parliamentary Budget Office the mandate to release its findings and products to all parliamentarians in a way that would promote fiscal transparency.

Also, there would be no changes to rules governing access to information and confidentiality. That is important for obvious reasons.

The bill would give powers similar to other officers of Parliament when it comes to hiring staff. Again, that is absolutely critical if we are going to have an independent lens on the country's finances.

As well, the bill would require the Parliamentary Budget Officer to present an estimate of the office's annual budget to the Speaker, which would then be sent to Treasury Board for inclusion. This would replace the current structure, where the Library of Parliament decides the Parliamentary Budget Officer's budget.

I have touched on the history of the PBO. It was created in 2006 as part of the Federal Accountability Act. The Conservatives had committed to creating the position in their election platform of 2006. It was in their platform, to ensure truth in budgeting, and that is why we supported it. We believed that was necessary.

Instead of creating the independent officer, however, in Parliament we ended up with an unfortunate circumstance. Again, this is not to be hypercritical of the government but to understand that after two years of the PBO in place, there needs to be some changes in terms of the structure and the function. Instead of situating it where it is now, in the Library of Parliament, the government needs to make sure there is true independence.

It is a matter of basic accountability. When the government comes to the House asking for a change in legislation or the passage of a budget bill, MPs should be fully aware of the fiscal implications of the decisions before them. That was exactly the inspiration for this office and this officer, and that is what we need to make sure happens.

In 2008 some argued that the budget office was an extension of the library and reported to the Chief Librarian. In structure it does that. However, most people would rather see it as an independent office of Parliament that publicly posts its findings and is not subject to a gatekeeper, in this case the Library of Parliament, of which I am a frequent flyer, for the record; I support the admirable work it does.

What have the Parliamentary Budget Office and the Parliamentary Budget Officer delivered to this House? Many things.

Members will recall that twice the House of Commons was asked by the government to extend Canada's military operations in Afghanistan without being provided the estimated costs. I think that was the first project for the PBO. It was only after the PBO responded to my request and told us the estimates for the mission in Afghanistan that we were actually able to get an idea of how much it was going to cost.

I go back to the Conservatives' concern when they were in opposition regarding the mission in Afghanistan. They asked four very cogent questions that I think we all should have been asking at that time: What is the mandate of this mission? What are we going to be doing? What is the breadth and length of the mission? What is the cost?

Simply put, I was asking the PBO to give us an estimate of the cost of the war at that time.

Also, the PBO has helped us to understand the estimates. The blue book is extremely important. It tells us where the government intends to spend money. Needless to say, for new members it is a bit overwhelming when they first get the estimates. It is the kitchen table budget that we should all be looking at. It tells us exactly where, by ministry, the money is going to be spent.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer is mandated to help us with this process. However, he or she needs to be given the independence to do that appropriately so that there is no arbitrary nature in terms of how he or she does the work, such as holding back reports, perhaps, or not being given the appropriate requisite funding to do the job.

Passing the estimates is the most important thing we do in this place in terms of the functioning of government. However, and you probably noted this when you were first elected, Mr. Speaker, the speed at which the estimates pass through this place is phenomenal.

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Joe Comartin Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Shameful.

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is shameful, as my colleague from Windsor—Tecumseh said.

We need to better understand what we are passing. I will not go through the litany of budgets that have been passed in this place by the current and previous governments when people were not able to unpack what was in the budget because we did not have the requisite support.

When I talk to fellow legislators from, for instance, the United States, they have all of that information at the tips of their fingers. The Congressional Budget Office is independent and not under the auspices of any other institution. It is funded appropriately. It gives all legislators in the United States access to the budget plans and costs of programs so they can understand what they are voting on.

Frankly, that has not happened here. We could do a pop quiz and ask any member of Parliament whether he or she knew in detail the ramifications of the budget that was passed and how much was going to be costed for this or that program.

Frankly, that cannot be done with a staff of two on Parliament Hill. We need access to this. The capacity of the Library of Parliament is such that it is not able to do that, nor does it have the mandate.

It begs the question, what should we do? The answer is in this legislation. We need to support the Parliamentary Budget Officer's having full independence. It is not just me who believes this. In fact, a Conservative senator, Hugh Segal, was very strong on this and said there needs to be full independence. I have talked to other members of the Conservative, Liberal, and Bloc caucuses, and they all believe the same thing.

It is not just the folks who work in this place. I will read a comment by Scott Clark, a former deputy minister of finance, who stated:

A strengthened and more independent Parliamentary Budget Office would promote greater understanding of complex budget issues; it would force the government to defend its economic and budget forecasts; it would promote a straightforward and more understandable and open budget process; it would promote accountability by commenting on the government’s projections and analysis; finally, by being non-partisan, it would provide research to all political parties. This would be especially important with minority governments, which seem to be likely in the foreseeable future.

To sum up, accountability needs to be more than a catchphrase. It needs to be the proper structure and function. It needs to be something that is not just said but is also seen. In the case of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the officer needs independence. Parliamentarians need to be provided the opportunity for access. It needs to be reformed.

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Chris Warkentin Peace River, AB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the member's initiative today. I will be speaking oto it later.

One of the measures brought forward in the Federal Accountability Act and supported by the member and his party was an initiative to bring transparency to over 70 federal institutions, including the CBC. The CBC is subsidized by taxpayers in this country to the amount of $1.1 billion.

This past weekend the member for Timmins—James Bay stated on the record that he was disenfranchised with the fact that the Information Commissioner was undertaking a legal initiative to try to break free information from the CBC specifically as it relates to how executives are being compensated and what they are spending federal tax dollars on.

I am wondering if the member supports full transparency for federal institutions or if he supports his colleague.

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I believe there is a cartoon in the newspaper called Non Sequitur and we just saw an indication of it.

We are talking about the Parliamentary Budget Officer having true independence to ensure that when we are passing the estimates and the budget and holding the government to account, we have support that is independent.

I am hoping the member's question about having oversight and transparency will lead him back to this legislation, which is to have independence for the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

I would ask my friend to support this initiative so that we can get truth in advertising so that his concerns about transparency and accountability will actually be heard. I hope for his support on this bill.

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Siobhan Coady St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate my hon. colleague on a great piece of legislation. I am very supportive of the legislation, especially of it going to committee so we can have more of a discussion on the role and responsibilities and the need to have an independent Parliamentary Budget Officer.

I wonder if my colleague would care to comment on the Truth in Sentencing Act, good legislation that shows the need and requirement for a Parliamentary Budget Officer. We were told that the Truth in Sentencing Act would only cost several hundred million dollars. I think the original estimate was for $90 million. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has pointed that it would actually be billions and billions of dollars for that legislation. Would my hon. colleague care to comment on that?

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, as I mentioned in my opening comments, there were concerns about the forecasting of budgets, but it is also for initiatives. With the initiative she is talking about, it is extremely important that we understand how much this will cost.

When the Conservative Party was in opposition, it had concerns about the numbers it was getting from government. It needs to work both ways. When in government, it needs to be able to say that when it was in opposition it wanted to see more daylight and fair play. That is exactly what we have here.

When we are talking about something as substantive as the overhaul of our criminal justice system, we need to know how much it will cost so that we understand the opportunity costs, obviously, and we understand what the real costs are.

If the parliamentary budget officer does not have independence and is not able to conduct his or her affairs without any kind of hindrance, then we will not get the straight goods and we will not be able to make informed decisions. At the end of the day this is about providing oxygen to accountability.

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

North Vancouver
B.C.

Conservative

Andrew Saxton Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in response to the proposals put forth in Bill C-572, An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Parliamentary Budget Officer).

As we know, this bill would take the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer out of the Library of Parliament and establish the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer as a separate office of Parliament with its own spending authorization.

The government supports referring this bill to committee where its implications for the structure and activities of the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Library of Parliament can be given full consideration by parliamentarians.

At the same time, I would like to point out that the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer already operates independently of government and answers to Parliament as an office of the Library of Parliament. It is Parliament, not the government, that sets the funding level for the parliamentary budget office.

I would also remind the members of this House that it was this government that established the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer in the first place. It was a key element in the Federal Accountability Act, which demonstrated our commitment to accountable government. In fact, strengthening accountability and increasing transparency in our public institutions has been one of the hallmarks of this government.

On coming into office, our first order of business was to introduce and implement the Federal Accountability Act. This act provided Canadians with the assurance that the powers entrusted in the government were being exercised in the public interest. That was four years ago.

I would also remind the members of this House that it was this government that established the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer in the first place. It was a key element in the Federal Accountability Act, which demonstrated our commitment to accountable government. In fact, strengthening accountability and increasing transparency in our public institutions has been one of the hallmarks of this government. We promised during our campaign to improve government accountability. And when we took power, that is exactly what we did.

The Federal Accountability Act and the supporting action plan contain dozens of measures and hundreds of amendments to some 45 federal statutes that touch virtually every part of government and beyond.

For example, the act made it a requirement that deputy ministers appear before parliamentary committees as accounting officers. We did this for the simple reason that organizations paid for by public money should be open to public scrutiny.

Through amendments to the Lobbying Act, the Access to Information Act and other measures, the Federal Accountability Act has made the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, parliamentarians and public service employees more accountable than ever before in our history.

However, we did not stop there. We recognized that parliamentarians and parliamentary committees needed access to independent, objective analysis and advice on economic and fiscal issues to better hold the government to account for its decisions.

That is why we established, in part 2 of the Federal Accountability Act, amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act, the position of the Parliamentary Budget Officer within the Library of Parliament. The mandate of this office is: to provide independent analysis to the Senate and to the House of Commons about the state of the nation's finances, the estimates of the government and trends in the national economy; to undertake research into the nation's finances and economy and the estimates of the government when requested to do so by certain parliamentary committees; and, when requested to do so by a member or committee, to estimate the financial cost of any proposal that relates to a matter over which parliament has jurisdiction.

Essentially, the job of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to give parliamentarians the information and independent analysis they can use to conduct a more rigorous and informed discussion of fundamental financial and economic issues.

This is exactly what has happened since the office was formed in 2008.

In the two years since it was established, the Parliamentary Budget Office has prepared five economic and fiscal updates and more than 20 research reports. It has also provided assessments of cost estimates of policy initiatives proposed in legislation, The Parliamentary Budget Officer himself has appeared before both House and Senate committees on eight occasions, more than most deputy ministers, let alone ministers.

This officer of the Library of Parliament is clearly fulfilling an important role independent of government.

The mandate of the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to estimate, at the request of a member of Parliament or a committee, the financial cost of any proposal that relates to a matter over which Parliament has jurisdiction.

Essentially the job of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to give parliamentarians the information and independent analysis they can use to conduct a more rigorous and informed discussion of fundamental financial and economic issues.

This is exactly what has happened since the office was formed in 2008. In the two years since it was established the Parliamentary Budget Office has prepared five economic and fiscal updates and more than 20 research reports. It has also provided assessments of cost estimates of policy initiatives proposed in legislation and the Parliamentary Budget Officer himself has appeared before both House and Senate committees on eight occasions, more than most deputy ministers, let alone ministers.

The results speak for themselves. The work of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is proof of the government's strong commitment to making our public institutions more accountable and more transparent.

We might disagree about some of the conclusions of the reports emanating from this office, but I doubt we would disagree about this officer's commitment. The reports coming out of this office have taken us to task on several occasions, providing different conclusions than those of the government.

We in the government do not always agree with the conclusions of this office, but what we can agree on is that the Parliamentary Budget Officer is sparking debate. Differences of opinion and in research results are natural and are the grease that makes the wheels of democracy go round. They stimulate discussion and lead to fuller more informed consideration of the issues.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has given parliamentarians additional tools to inform our debates on how public money is being spent. It is a sign of the maturity and robustness of Canadian democracy that this organization created by our government is serving the people of Canada as it was meant to do, even if its conclusions sometimes differ from our own.

Thus, I think that we can all agree on one thing: over the past two years, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has improved how decisions are made by Parliament and has enriched Canada's political dialogue.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has given parliamentarians additional tools to inform our debates on how public money is being spent. It is a sign of the maturity and robustness of Canadian democracy that this organization created by our government is serving the people of Canada as it was meant to do even if its conclusions sometimes differ from our own. This office has proven the strength of our parliamentary system. Canadians are well served by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

We understand the importance of accountable government to Canadians and we understand the importance of this office doing its job well. That is why we established the parliamentary budget office that is fully independent of government in its operations and funding.

As parliamentarians, we need to ensure that the laws we pass are responsible and in the best interests of good public policy. There are some obvious problems with this legislation. The changes proposed in this bill would likely result in some duplication of efforts with the Library of Parliament. The new office that would be created, if this bill were to pass, would almost certainly require new appropriations.

Parliament has made it clear that the Parliamentary Budget Officer's current role and mandate are appropriate. In fact, in 2009 the Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament issued a report that made a number of recommendations in this regard.

Suffice it to say that I expect members will have many questions on this legislation. We think that this legislation needs a closer look, which is why we support having the bill referred to committee for study.

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Siobhan Coady St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise in the House this morning and speak to Bill C-572, the strengthening fiscal transparency act. As my hon. colleague who introduced the bill said, it would give oxygen to accountability. The Liberal Party is committed to making the Parliamentary Budget Officer truly independent so that he or she can properly do the job.

As the Conservatives used to say, Canadians need an independent Parliamentary Budget Officer to “ensure truth in budgeting”. Since he was appointed in March 2008, the PBO has been prolific in telling Canadians the truth about Canada's books. He has explained to us how the Conservative government is the biggest borrowing and biggest spending government in Canadian history. He has demonstrated how the Conservatives have combined reckless tax cuts and massive spending increases to give Canada a structural deficit even before the economic downturn began.

Last month the PBO showed us how the Conservatives are putting Canada even deeper into debt and how there is an 85% chance the Conservatives will break their promise to balance the budget by 2015-16. Time after time the Parliamentary Budget Officer has been proven right while the Minister of Finance has been forced to revise his numbers to more closely match those of the PBO.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has also told Canadians the truth about how much more we will have to spend on prisons because of the Conservative crime agenda. The Conservatives initially told Canadians that their truth in sentencing act would cost only $90 million over two years. Then under pressure, they revised this figure to $2 billion over five years. Now thanks to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, we know this legislation will actually cost the federal government closer to $5 billion over five years, plus an estimated $5 billion to $8 billion at the provincial level, for a total cost to Canadians of $10 billion to $13 billion over five years. That is a far cry from the initial promise of just $90 million.

That is not the only example of the PBO telling the truth about reckless Conservative spending. He has also told the truth about how slow the federal progress has been on stimulus projects, as well as how the Conservatives have underestimated the actual cost of Canada's mission in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the Conservatives find these truths to be somewhat inconvenient. The Conservative government has a record of attacking public servants who dare to speak truth to power. We have seen this in how they have treated Colonel Pat Stogran, the former Veterans Ombudsman; Munir Sheikh, the former head of Statistics Canada; Linda Keen, the former chair of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; Rémy Beauregard, the former chair of Rights & Democracy; and Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin, to name just a few. Sadly, we can also add Kevin Page, the current Parliamentary Budget Officer, to this list.

In September, former deputy finance minister Scott Clark and former director of fiscal policy Peter DeVries wrote about how the Conservatives have mistreated the PBO. They said:

...no one should be surprised, given the...[Conservative] government's dislike of independent research and opposing opinion. When it confronts disagreement with its preconceived views, and facts that don't support these views, its modus operandi is simply to get rid of the source of this disagreement and to ignore the facts.

The Conservatives have shown contempt for the PBO by trying to deny Mr. Page the resources he needs to do his job. The Parliament of Canada Act states that the PBO is entitled to “free and timely access to any financial or economic data in the possession of the department that are required for the performance of his or her mandate”.

But the PBO has complained that the government will not even share basic financial information, such as baseline departmental spending levels or how the government plans to achieve its operating budget freeze. This despite the Conservatives' election platform, which promised to “require government departments and agencies to provide accurate, timely information to the Parliamentary Budget Authority to ensure it has the information it needs...”. It is just another broken Conservative promise.

However, the Conservatives are not simply trying to starve Mr. Page of information. Last year they also tried to frustrate Mr. Page's work by cutting $1 million from his budget.

National Post columnist Kelly McParland pointed out the blatant hypocrisy of this Conservative move when he wrote:

This from a government that spends tens of millions blowing its own horn over the stimulus program, even forcing municipalities to pay for signs promoting the plan, or lose the funding.

Mr. McParland continued, “Get real, Tories. Give the man his money and quit acting so childish”.

Unfortunately, Mr. Page is still fighting for his budget. Earlier this month Mr. Page told the finance committee:

...I've spent a whole year fighting to get my budget back. It took me two years to get my HR plan approved. Our budget is frozen at 2.8%.

To this the Conservatives replied:

Yes, frozen, but that doesn't mean it can't go in the other direction. That's not a threat; that's the reality.

Despite these threats from this Conservative government, Mr. Page is continuing his fight for more independence, and to make it clear he is not doing so out of self-interest, Mr. Page has announced that he will not seek another term after his current mandate expires.

It is my hope that Canada will have a new government before then, a new Liberal government, because a Liberal government will not only give the PBO real independence so he can do his job; we will also implement the Liberal open government initiative and end this Conservative era of secrecy and control. We will start by directing all federal departments and agencies to adopt a default principle of open government when it comes to sharing information.

As part of a Liberal open government initiative, we will also restore the long form census. We will publish as many government data sets as possible, online, free of charge and in an open searchable format, starting with the Statistics Canada data. We will also publish all access to information requests, responses and response times, and we will publish information on government grants, contributions and contracts through an online searchable database. We will do that because, as Liberals, we believe Canadians are entitled to this information. We believe that Canadian taxpayers have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent, and we recognize that it is impossible for Canadians to know where their tax dollars are going or if government is getting value for money without access to usable and searchable government information.

Speaking of tax dollars, I would like to address one final aspect of Bill C-572. There has been some discussion on whether or not the bill would require royal recommendation. I do not believe it should. Bill C-572 adjusts the structure of the PBO by removing him from under the authority of the Parliamentary Librarian and giving him the rank of deputy head of a department. However, the office of the PBO already exists, although it is within the Library of Parliament, and the PBO already has a budget with which to pay salaries and enter into contracts.

Given these facts, I do not believe that Bill C-572 requires that the federal government spend any additional funds whatsoever.

To conclude, I support the aim of this legislation, which is to give the Parliamentary Budget Officer greater independence so that he might properly carry out his mandate, and so with the expectation that Bill C-572 will not require royal recommendation, I am pleased to support this legislation at second reading so it may be studied at committee.

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

Bloc

Daniel Paillé Hochelaga, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is our turn to speak about this bill. It is rather unusual to hear members of the government tell us that there is a Parliamentary Budget Officer but that they should be allowed to keep doing what they can with it, in other words, make it very difficult for the officer to do his job, or perhaps even more subtly, hold up his funding and procrastinate when it comes time to give him information.

In its 2005-06 platform, the Bloc Québécois submitted the idea that parliamentarians should have a competent authority figure who can respond to certain questions. Question period is aptly named because it is nothing but questions. I have experienced it for a year now. We do not receive effective answers to our questions here in the House. We need this type of budget officer.

When the bill that created this position was examined, the Bloc Québécois proposed some amendments to the effect that the Parliamentary Budget Officer should fall under, or at least be somehow connected to, the Office of the Auditor General. At the time, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party and the NDP all voted against it. Over time, however, they have understood.

What is the goal? The purpose of this bill, which we strongly support, is to make the Parliamentary Budget Officer completely independent and allow the PBO to operate with full transparency. Who is asking for this? The current PBO himself.

I was not here on January 17, 2009, but that day the Parliamentary Budget Officer said that he saw his role as that of an independent economic and financial advisor to Parliament. He also said the PBO must also have sufficient functional independence and some degree of protection from any potential retribution. It was the Parliamentary Budget Officer himself who said this on January 17, 2009. He was not saying these things just for fun, but rather because he did not feel he had any protection or independence.

He also said that, according to an independent legal opinion, it is important that his actions regarding contracting for specialized services not be undermined or interfered with. As we know, he must ask for permission from the Library of Parliament. We must ensure that there are no restrictions on his ability to report to parliamentarians and Canadians, and no significant delays in the publication of his reports or in staffing the PBO office. It is all well and good to say we have a parliamentary budget officer, but his budget is going to be cut. It is also important that there be no unilateral reduction in the PBO budget. The Parliamentary Budget Officer therefore concluded that the government's actions were impeding his ability to help us obtain the necessary information.

He had been told that his operating budget would be frozen.

On November 3, 2010, when he released his Economic and Fiscal Assessment 2010, the Parliamentary Budget Officer said he had requested certain information in order to do his own analysis of the government's planned budget freeze. In a blatant lack of transparency, the government indicated that the information would not be released to him or made public.

On March 11, 2010, in his analysis of the budget 2010 economic outlook, the Parliamentary Budget Officer said he wanted details. He therefore requested figures in June 2009 and March 2010. He told us that he had not yet received that information. Those are two examples of delays.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer should not have to walk a tightrope, either. He has no idea what his budget will be come April 2010. The cost of a PBO is the equivalent of 10 minutes of the G8 or G20. The government wasted $1 billion on the G8 and G20 party. By comparison, the Parliamentary Budget Officer's annual budget amounts to 10 minutes of the G8 and G20. Compared to the $1 billion the government spent on the G8 and G20, the Parliamentary Budget Officer's budget is the equivalent of my allotted time here in the House. That gives us an idea of how important the government feels the PBO is.

Who does the government want as the Parliamentary Budget Officer? It wants people who are competent. I regularly meet with people from the PBO's office. There is the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Mr. Page, who has 27 years' experience in the federal public service. He has worked at Finance Canada, the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Privy Council Office. I have also met with senior officials including Mostafa Askari, the director general of economic and fiscal analysis. He has worked at Health Canada, Finance Canada, the IMF and the Conference Board of Canada. Another person I meet with is Mr. Khan, the director general of expenditure and revenue analysis. He has worked at the Privy Council Office, the Treasury Board Secretariat and Deloitte in New York.

If the government wants highly competent, totally independent people like these, it must not hang a sword of Damocles over their heads by saying they could lose their jobs or half their budget on April 1. The government wants results commensurate with people's expertise, and that costs money.

What does the bill indicate? The point is to remove the Parliamentary Budget Officer from the Library of Parliament's budget and give him status similar to that of the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer or the Official Languages Commissioner. We are not going so far as to call for a status like that of the Governor of the Bank of Canada, but the PBO has to have independent status.

Currently, it is up to his highness. The Parliamentary Budget Officer and his team hold office during pleasure for a term of five years, according to the whim of the ruling party. Based on the questions the official opposition, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP are asking the Minister of Finance and the minister's attitude toward Mr. Page, the latter is walking a tightrope.

Under the bill, which we are supporting, the Parliamentary Budget Officer would be appointed to hold office during good behaviour for a term of seven years, unless removed by Parliament. The PBO must also be given a proactive mandate to be able to conduct his own analyses.

On April 11, 2006, and April 26, 2008, and in October 2008 and in December, the Bloc has spoken in support of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

For example, on October 9, 2008, the leader of the Bloc relied on the Parliamentary Budget Officer's assessment of the cost of the mission in Afghanistan. Today, in 2010, we want to know what the anticipated extension of this war will cost. We need a Parliamentary Budget Officer who is completely independent and reports to the House.

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to be engaged in this debate.

First, I would like to compliment my colleague from Ottawa Centre for his introduction of Bill C-572. He has been on this file of the Parliamentary Budget Office for years now and has been dogged in his determination that Parliament will get what has been promised to it and what it needs in terms of an independent Parliamentary Budget Office.

In fact, it was the member for Ottawa Centre who made the request for information from the PBO to let Canadians know that the number the government was using for the cost of the Afghan war was not accurate. In the absence of a PBO being able to independently say what the number is, we are trapped in the political quagmire of having to use government numbers because there is really nothing else. Quite frankly, with the credibility of the backing of old bureaucracy, if one member stands to say that the government's number is wrong, that it is inflated, it gets written off as opposition talk. The hon. member for Ottawa Centre took it upon himself to utilize the PBO in a way that typifies what the Parliamentary Budget Office should be, can be and must be for our country.

It was interesting to listen to the opening comments from the government and the Liberals. I happen to have followed up on the work of the member for Ottawa Centre on this file.

I was subbed onto the Library subcommittee that was dealing with this. I will parenthetically say, that is how ridiculous this is. We are talking about someone who has the power to command the information that tells Canadians that the Afghan war cost $18 billion, but the source of the administration and where that important office lives is relegated to a subcommittee of the Library Committee.

I was on that committee and it was interesting that only the Bloc and the NDP went into those discussions. I recall we were in crisis when the government would not honour its funding promise to the PBO. The PBO then started to seize up and we started to get into this gridlock. That is why the committee was struck and that is why I was there.

I cannot talk about what he said, she said, because they were in camera meetings. I can say that the opening position of the Bloc and the NDP was that the Parliamentary Budget Officer needed to be an independent officer of Parliament in exactly the same way as the Auditor General and others.

The Liberals were not there. The Conservatives, as far as I am concerned, still are not. They talk a good game, but when the rubber hits the road, they are not there.

Over the course of the discussions, and I have said this before, I will give my Liberal colleagues their due. They saw the light, they got religion and realized that leaving it where it was, although it is sometimes inconvenient to some members and some entities, it was the right thing to do. I have already said what I think about the government.

Why did we need to have these hearings, meetings and deliberations of the subcommittee? Because the government did not honour its promise. It broke another promise, and that is becoming a broken record in and of itself to say all the time. The government talks of a great democracy, especially in an election, but when it comes to putting democracy into law and protecting democracy, it is missing in action.

The reason this committee had to meet, as I said earlier, was because the Parliamentary Budget Office was beginning to seize up through lack of funding. That was exactly what the government wanted. At the end of the day, the government's calculation politically was that it was easier and better to take the hit for not fully funding its promise. This does not exactly generate a headline in and of itself. However, the government weighed that political cost against the damage of having a fully-funded, functioning Parliamentary Budget Officer who was churning out real numbers and that scared it. The government was prepared to put us into this kind of turmoil, which still exists to this day.

At the committee meeting, the only way we came to an agreement was by a good old compromise. Those of us who wanted it to be a truly independent office were not going to vote to freeze and lock in forever and a day, which is where the PBO is right now. However, because, by law, it is where it is, the deal was that the government would provide all the funding it promised, which had not been flowing, and in return those of us who did not support a continuation of the PBO buried in the Library committee, would accept that the law would not change for the next couple years. Therefore, we built in a review.

Some would ask us why we did that. Had we not made that compromise, the end result of that committee would have been the government again would have something else to point to as an excuse for not funding. Conservatives could have said that they could not get agreement from the committee. Therefore, until it knew exactly where it was to go, it would flow X number of dollars. The next thing would be everyone's eyes would glaze over and nobody would pay any attention. We were not going to let that happen.

Right now the funding is to the maximum of the promise made. To the best of my knowledge, that money is flowing and there are no administrative impediments in the way, but the clock is ticking. Within our agreement, a complete review of the mandate and of the independence of the powers is back up for review. We will see which one crosses the line first in terms of putting the government's feet to the fire. Will it be that review and will we have to wait for it, as it really is an insurance policy? The best political strategy is one that can be seen, implemented and acted upon.

The fact was we had hoped that eventually the Liberals would come onside and agree it should be an independent office and if the Conservatives would not do it, at least ultimately down the road we would know there would be a majority of parliamentarians within caucuses elected in the House that could have the power to move on it. We are getting there, but it is a shame we have had to get there kicking, dragging and screaming rather than seeing something positive for which the government can take a bit of credit.

Will we act on this bill, start to give some meaning to the government promises and implement it? It will be interesting to see what happens first. It depends on when the election is. It depends how things unfold, et cetera. What I do know, with as much certainty one can have, is that the course has been set. It might take us a few zigzags along the way to get there, working our way around certain parliamentary blockades, and that is the government, but we will get there.

Canadians will get our equivalent of what the American Congress already has, which is that independent, credible ability to provide opposition members, but more important Canadians, with real numbers, especially when we are going through these times. This is about real numbers. It is about ensuring that when we are talking about the future of Canada, at the very least, the government, the opposition and Canadian people are all using the same numbers and they are good, real numbers that can be backed up and are completely apart from any partisanship. That is a major improvement in our democracy.

I thank the member for Ottawa Centre again for bringing this forward. This is an important growth piece of our continuing majority as a democracy. I hope to be here when the day comes that the position is made an independent officer of Parliament.

Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
Private Members' Business

Noon

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired, and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

Tax Conventions Implementation Act, 2010
Government Orders

Noon

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

There being no motions at report stage, the House will now proceed, without debate, to the putting of the question on the motion to concur in the bill at report stage.

Tax Conventions Implementation Act, 2010
Government Orders

Noon

Conservative

Gail Shea Egmont, PE

moved that the bill be concurred in.