Parliamentary Budget Officer Act

An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Parliamentary Budget Officer)

This bill was last introduced in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session, which ended in September 2013.

Sponsor

Thomas Mulcair  NDP

Introduced as a private member’s bill. (These don’t often become law.)

Status

Defeated, as of June 12, 2013
(This bill did not become law.)

Summary

This is from the published bill. The Library of Parliament often publishes better independent summaries.

This enactment provides for the appointment of the Parliamentary Budget Officer as an officer of Parliament.

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Votes

June 12, 2013 Failed That the Bill be now read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

June 10th, 2013 / 11:05 a.m.
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Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Liberal Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, this is a big day today. I just exchanged pleasantries with the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, and it is his birthday. We are expecting to maybe put forward legislation identifying today as a national holiday.

I am happy to put in my two cents' worth on this important bill. This is a significant and important piece of legislation, and certainly my colleague from Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, during first reading of the bill, identified the fact that our party will indeed be supporting it because we believe in the spirit of the bill and that, in essence, it would be an important step forward. I also recognize the fact that my colleague, the member for Markham—Unionville, had tabled the first motion before Parliament in February 2009, calling for the parliamentary budget officer to be made an independent officer of Parliament. That is worth noting as we begin to discuss this particular bill today.

Although this bill is about the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, it is hard to talk about it without talking about the first Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page. For obvious reasons, the two will be inextricably linked. My thoughts on this bill will therefore be very respectful of the experience Mr. Page had over his five years as PBO, and his comments on the office, including the challenges that he faced and the worries he had about its future if not strengthened and protected.

One of Mr. Page's comments sums up the issue around transparency and accountability under the current government. He summed it up well when he said, “Our institutions of accountability are in trouble. Parliament does not get the information and analysis it needs to hold the executive...to account.” Of course, “the executive” refers to the Prime Minister and cabinet. Later in his comments he said, “In a culture where secrecy is far too common and analytical dissonance is not welcome, the future of my office, the legislative budget office is in doubt.”

This is a debate that has taken place here in the chamber, but also right across this country in the court of public opinion. I believe it was one that Mr. Page put forward. Canadians understand the significance around this issue and certainly are respectful of the courage, the vision and the passion he had for this position, and as well of his ability. It has been proven time and again, issue by issue, that the Parliamentary Budget Officer was very often closer to reality than what we were hearing from the government benches and the spin around the various issues or crises of the day.

Mr. Page is a man who dedicated five years of his life to the service of Parliament and to Canadians to provide and promote financial transparency and accountability. Seven years ago, the current government promised a new standard of accountability. We know the Conservative government rode in on the white horse called “accountability”, promising a different era, certainly a more open Parliament and a more open government.

We have not seen that. That horse has been dead for quite some time, as much as the government might want to beat it. In the eyes of most Canadians, whether the horse ever arrived in Ottawa or not, it is certainly gone now. The government had a golden halo of transparency that was very much touted and highly talked about, but that halo is considerably tarnished now.

That is what happens when the standard method of operation is “do as I say, not as I do”. It is very significant, in the wake of what transpired this past week, when we saw the former Conservative member for Edmonton—St. Albert comment, “I barely recognize ourselves and worse I feel that we have morphed into what we once mocked.”

I certainly do not agree with everything the member has said or with his views on many issues. However, I think it was eloquent, poignant and truthful. Many Conservatives across this country, certainly Conservatives in my riding with whom I have great friendship and for whom I have great respect even though we may have different political views, are very concerned about how the government has taken those principles of transparency, openness and accountability, and just sort of put them in the back of the bus.

The departure of the member for Edmonton—St. Albert brings that to a very poignant point in the life of the government.

Bill C-476 stands for principles, including the principle that the parliamentary budget officer should be an independent watchdog and provide independent analysis to Parliament, not cheerleading for the government.

The purpose of the office itself is to help with forecasts on economic and fiscal planning, help with costing new programs, and help with the scrutiny of departmental apportionments and appropriations. We have seen the debacle with the F-35s. The numbers continue to change. I think it was my colleague, the member for Westmount—Ville-Marie, who first brought the issue around the F-35s to the House two and a half years ago.

We were given a snow job then. We were given numbers that certainly dismissed any concerns around the procurement of the F-35s. It was with a clear vision, clear thinking and a commitment to get to the truth that the Parliamentary Budget Officer pursued what was real within the tendering process. Through those numbers, the Parliamentary Budget Officer was able to bring it around to what many other nations across the world that were involved in the procurement of this particular aircraft knew all along.

I want to commend my colleague, the member for Westmount—Ville-Marie. I want to again echo support for this bill on behalf of our party. We think the parliamentary budget officer should be independent from the executive. The role of the PBO is essential in providing this House with the important information that it needs, so that it can base its decisions on truth, not spin; on fact, not fiction; and on hard numbers.

It is for those reasons that we will stand and support this piece of legislation.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

June 10th, 2013 / 11:15 a.m.
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NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, it is my privilege to rise to speak in support of Bill C-476, tabled by the member for Outremont and leader of the official opposition.

Bill C-476, once enacted, would create an independent Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, separating it from the Library of Parliament where it is now; broaden the PBO's mandate and access to relevant information; require annual reports to the House of Commons and Senate; create a streamlined non-partisan process for appointment; and finally, ensure that the PBO is capable of understanding and working in both official languages.

Why are these proposed changes to the legislated mandate for the PBO so critical? The government created the PBO to support its once widely touted new transparent, accountable and open government. In fact, the Conservatives' 2006 electoral platform committed to create an independent parliamentary budget office authority to provide objective analysis directly to Parliament about the state of the nation's finances and trends in the national economy. As stated by the finance minister in 2006:

Canadians deserve to know the true state of their economy and to live within a budget which is based on accurate, open and honest figures. We must put an end once and for all to the previous government's habit of getting it wrong. Governments cannot be held to account if Parliament and Canadians do not know the real state of public finances.

The Prime Minister, in speaking of the PBO in 2006, stated, “Such a body would ensure that the government is genuinely accountable for taxpayers’ dollars and that we maintain fiscal discipline at the federal level.”

Now flash forward to 2013, where the selfsame Minister of Finance has had quite a change of heart now that the rigorous analysis that he once so enthusiastically supported has now exposed many problems. The finance minister made an accusatory comment about the PBO to the effect that he was wandering off from his mandate of reporting to Parliament on “how the government is doing in its budgeting”.

We note, as my colleague said, the comments by the member for Edmonton—St. Albert, that he is deeply chagrined and in fact has left the Conservative Party because it has strayed from its principles of openness and transparency and the members have morphed into what they formerly criticized.

Indeed, despite these early endorsements for open government and a strong role for the PBO, seven years later we witness case after case where the government has refused PBO requests for information necessary to delivery his statutory mandate including: estimated costs for the Afghan war, estimated costs for the F-35 fighter jets, the estimated deficit, sustainability of the OAS program and estimated impacts of cuts to the federal service on continued delivery of front-line services.

The mandate and services of the PBO have been found invaluable to the ability of MPs to do their job scrutinizing government estimates and spending. The PBO mandate appears to be quite clear to most, with the apparent exception of the very government that created the office. What is the mandate? The PBO was created in 2006 with the enactment of the Financial Accountability Act. This mandate is clearly prescribed in law “to provide objective analysis to the Senate and House of Commons about the estimates of the government, the state of the nation’s finances and trends in the national economy”. The PBO is also mandated to undertake research and assist committees in their review and analysis of estimates. Clearly, to deliver this mandate, the PBO must have ready and open access to financial and economic data.

Accessibility to all information has regrettably become a matter of ongoing contention for the former PBO. He was ultimately forced to seek a court ruling due to access denials. The court referral related to requests from the leader of the official opposition seeking the PBO's analysis of the effect of cuts to the federal public service on front-line services. Here is what the court ruled vis-à-vis the mandate of the PBO:

The Parliament of Canada has, by statute, mandated its budget officer to, among other things, “estimate the financial cost of any proposal that relates to a matter over which Parliament has jurisdiction” when requested to do so by any member of the House of Commons or any Senator.... In order to give effect to that mandate, subject to certain exceptions, section 79.3... the Parliamentary Budget Officer by request to the deputy head of a department, or delegate, 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.”

In the course of my role on the government operations committee, we undertook, as well, a review of how members of Parliament could begin to do a more effective job of review of estimates and spending. In doing so, we heard from a number of experts.

One of the worldwide experts that has stated support for a strong Parliamentary Budget Officer is the OECD. Our report noted that the OECD found that the best practices for budget transparency required that parliamentarians had the opportunity and the resources to effectively examine any fiscal report they deem necessary.

Our community heard from, among others, Dr. Joachim Wehner. Dr. Wehner is associate professor of public policy at the London School of Economic and Political Science. He testified that in order to improve scrutiny of estimates and supply:

The first...is to protect and enhance the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.... Internationally, the Parliamentary Budget Officer of Canada is very highly regarded, and it's certainly a major change...in the degree the parliament in Canada has access to an independent, highly professional research capacity.

He added, though, that based upon his experience with similar officers in other jurisdictions, the role of the PBO could have been further strengthened if made a full officer of Parliament, with total access to all relevant information.

Also, Canadian expert Dr. David Good, professor of the School of Public Administration, University of Victoria, testified to our committee:

First, I would make the Parliamentary Budget Officer a full agent of Parliament to assist parliamentarians and committees. I think the role and mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer needs to be clarified and strengthened by making the office legislatively separate and independent of the Library of Parliament, thereby operating as a full agent of Parliament.

Accessibility to all information, regrettably, became a matter of ongoing contention for the current PBO. He was ultimately, as I mentioned, forced to seek a court ruling. That court ruling was related to a request from the leader of the official opposition.

I can personally attest to the value of the reporting and analysis provided by the Parliamentary Budget Officer. My participation in the parliamentary study on scrutiny of estimates and supply, and subsequent examination of government priorities and spending, has opened my eyes to the disconnect between the information the government is willing to reveal and the information parliamentarians actually require to make informed decisions on spending taxpayers' hard-earned dollars.

As elected members of Parliament, we are meant to be stewards of the public purse. We can choose to make informed decisions. A strengthened mandate for the Parliamentary Budget Officer, as provided in Bill C-476, could offer that window.

I encourage all members of this House to vote in support of the member for Outremont's bill, Bill C-476, create an independent Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, broaden his mandate, require annual reports and create streamlined, non-partisan processes for appointments.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

June 10th, 2013 / 11:20 a.m.
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NDP

Alexandre Boulerice NDP Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have the honour to rise to speak to the bill of the leader of the official opposition, the member for Outremont.

The purpose of this excellent bill is to create a separate and independent Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer—who will be a full officer of Parliament—that will not just be part of the office of the Library of Parliament, as is currently the case.

First, it would be pertinent to ask why this bill is needed now. It is needed because something is broken in the system. The Conservatives broke their promise of transparency and their commitment to an open government that listens to the people. They have given us one disappointment after another.

The Conservatives are willing to undermine the credibility of those who say things they do not like, who dare to stand up, tell the truth and remember the facts. They attack those who work as our system's watchdogs and any others who dare criticize them, such as environmentalists, scientists and unions, whom they often, and very publicly, treat with contempt.

First of all, the Conservatives promised to establish the position of parliamentary budget officer, and they did. However, they then did everything they could to undermine his credibility. It was a good idea at the outset, and then it all fell apart. When they realized that the officer they had appointed could stand on his own two feet, challenge their figures and even point out scandals, such as the cost of the F-35s, which was much higher than they were telling people, they began to say that people should not listen to the parliamentary budget officer, that he did not know what he was talking about and that what he was saying was untrue.

We heard Conservative members make light of the work done by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, even though this work was essential and could shed light on what was going on in terms of the Conservative government’s real expenditures. As the truth can be shocking and upsetting, they did everything they could to sideline and muzzle the parliamentary budget officer and publicly cast doubt on his credibility, when in fact he was doing good work.

That is why the member for Outremont introduced a private member’s bill that would strengthen and protect the parliamentary budget officer position and make it truly independent. We need this external audit and this oversight from competent people who are sheltered from political attack and manipulation by the Conservative government.

When we hear people from the Prime Minister's Office tell us that what they need is a new parliamentary budget officer who is capable of co-operating with them, it is worrisome. It means that they do not want their little lapdog to bark too loudly, upset things too much, undermine them and reveal information that might cause a public scandal, such as the famous scandal around the exploding cost of the F-35s.

As my colleague from Alberta just mentioned, when I entered Parliament, the late Jack Layton honoured me by appointing the official opposition critic for the Treasury Board. My experience was similar to what my colleague from Edmonton—Strathcona found. The budget process is so complex, intricate and lengthy that it is extremely difficult to check the government's estimates against the actual expenditures made afterwards.

As the main estimates are about to be tabled, followed by two supplementary estimates—supplementary estimates (A), (B) and sometimes (C)—it is very difficult to know what the government’s real intentions are with respect to its program spending. The main estimates are also unrelated to the budget tabled by the Minister of Finance, and two years may go by before Public Works and Government Services Canada can to tell us how the money was actually spent. No wonder it is all so confusing.

This lengthy, complex and highly intricate process makes it very difficult for parliamentarians to know how the money is being spent. Yet one of the main roles of the legislature as opposed to the executive is to monitor government spending.

Without a parliamentary budget officer who is completely independent and provided with the means to do his job, parliamentarians are deaf, blind and unable to verify whether promises have been kept or planned cost reductions implemented and if so, what consequences such cuts have had.

In that respect, I want to remind the House that the Leader of the Opposition called on the former parliamentary budget officer to assess the impact of the Conservative government's cutbacks.

It is all well and good for them to say they are going to cut $4 billion from the envelope set aside for public services, that they are going to eliminate 19,600 positions that provide services to the public, and in the same breath have the nerve to say this will have no impact on services to Canadians. Everyone knows this is nothing but smoke and mirrors. We need to be able to determine the real impact.

The leader of the NDP asked the parliamentary budget officer to contact every department to determine the real, specific consequences of the Conservatives' ideological cuts. The parliamentary budget officer quickly found himself in the midst of a fight, because the ministers stood in his way, refused to give him access to the information he needed and prevented him from doing his job. The parliamentary budget officer, a position that was created by the Conservatives, was forced to take the matter to the Federal Court to fight the government to get that information. This is an absolute disgrace, which is why Bill C-476 is so essential.

The Conservatives promised transparency and integrity. I do not want to get into what is happening in the Prime Minister's Office regarding its relationship to senators who apparently cheated the expense claims system. Once again, there is no transparency and we are being left completely in the dark. Yet, the Conservatives promised Canadians integrity and an honest, open and transparent government. They promised one thing and are doing the exact opposite. They have broken their promise over and over again.

It is no wonder the hon. member for Edmonton—St. Albert left the caucus. He left specifically because as soon as the Conservatives came to power, they became everything they despised about the Liberals when they were in power before them. The Conservatives wanted to change Ottawa, but instead, Ottawa changed the Conservative Party. The PMO must maintain absolute control at all times. One lie after the other is being told to try to convince people that the Conservatives are doing what they promised, when really, quite the opposite is true.

The member for Edmonton—St. Albert was thoroughly fed up. When they intervened to amend his private member's bill to disclose only the salaries of senior officials earning $444,000 or more, he said that that was enough and that he had not come to Ottawa to play that game or to continue keeping little secrets or to appoint friends to various organizations, as they are doing. He had had enough and decided to sit as an independent. I understand him.

Canadians will also understand that we cannot trust the Conservatives and that their promises of transparency are mere smoke and mirrors. We see how they acted with the former parliamentary budget officer. It was truly shameful. Bill C-476 will solve that problem and ensure that, regardless of the party in power in future, we will have an independent officer of Parliament who can do his job and tell the public what is actually being done with their taxes. We need that.

They will no longer be able to play games, as they are currently doing. For example, the parliamentary budget officer's term comes to an end and they leave the position vacant, promising ultimately to fill it, and pass the buck to the Parliamentary Librarian. That is simply not her job. She has neither the means nor the expertise to devote herself fully to that task, which actually amounts to a full-time job.

The bill provides that the leader of every recognized party in the House will have to be consulted and that the appointment must be made six months before the previous term expires. That will allow for a genuine transition. The person who takes up the position of parliamentary budget officer will be able to prepare. That will prevent the kind of vacancy that we are currently seeing. We do not really have anyone in the position on a full-time basis, even though that is important because this is the time of year when the Minister of Finance tables his budget. The Conservatives have made sure that we do not have a real parliamentary budget officer.

It is also important to realize, when we compare ourselves to our American colleagues, that we must allocate significant human and financial resources to the parliamentary budget office. For a budget of tens of billions of dollars, only 12 people work in the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, whereas the American equivalent has 200 employees.

I understand that there are many more Americans than Canadians, but we should at least double the resources allocated to the parliamentary budget officer so that Canadians can finally see what happens to their money, how it is spent and what the impact of the Conservatives' cuts is and so that, one day, they can finally have a transparent government in Ottawa.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

June 10th, 2013 / 11:30 a.m.
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NDP

Paul Dewar NDP Ottawa Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleagues, and particularly our leader, for bringing this piece of legislation forward.

It is interesting that the week we are debating this is National Public Service Week. I begin my comments by saluting all the hard-working public servants who, day in and day out, make our country function. I thank them for their work, and I hope the government actually says that at some point this week. I know they have had some tough times recently, but we all have to thank our public servants for the work they do, which, frankly, make us look good. I wish there was more respect for them.

In fact, when we look at the position of parliamentary budget officer and the work Mr. Page did and the need for reform of this position, it is all about serving the public.

We would have to go back in time to when the Liberals were in power. Time after time, we saw budgets coming in after the government looked at the private and public sector forecasts and lowballed them. Every budget would come in having extra money. The Liberals could say that they were great managers. It was a lack of truth in advertising. Everyone knows that. It was not about the Liberal Party's great fiscal management. It was about the fact that it played with the numbers.

Because of that, people quite rightly decided that we should have an independent position created, as they have in the United States and other jurisdictions, to give us truth in advertising. We came up with the idea of a public servant we would all depend on, who was recently Kevin Page, and the public discourse we would have in the country when the parliamentary budget officer would provide the facts.

That was fine. It was a good idea. I was on the committee for Bill C-2, the Federal Accountability Act, which is interesting to look at now, considering the government's lack of accountability. However, we supported the government on the PBO. We also supported the government in bringing in more accountability.

The two positions that were extremely important for the New Democratic Party were the parliamentary budget officer, and of course, the public appointments commission. In both cases, the Conservatives undermined and took issue with these positions. In the case of the public appointments commission, they killed it. Everyone knows that story. In the case of the parliamentary budget officer, the position was created, but to the surprise of all of us, they decided that instead of having an independent office, they would actually put this office in the Library of Parliament.

I do not have to explain to you, Mr. Speaker, because you have been here for a while, what that would do to the independence of the budget officer when he would have to actually report to the head librarian. With no disrespect to the Library of Parliament, it showed us from the beginning what the government was up to: under-resourcing the office. The mandate would be such that the reporting mechanism would go through the library.

When we actually had a report from the parliamentary budget office, the government started playing around with it. The first study Kevin Page did was on the war in Afghanistan. Going back in time, we had asked in the House, time after time, that the government come forward and tell us how much the war was costing and how much was it going to cost. In the United States, in the U.K. and among all of our allies, these were the questions being asked. They actually got answers, because no country was going to go to war without understanding how much it was going to cost. That is just basic, responsible government. Our government said that it was too complicated and that it could not add up all the costs of the war and project them.

I actually wrote to Kevin Page and asked him to do a study. I think to the surprise of the government, he did the study. The bigger surprise was that he had it ready during the 2008 election. This is when it got interesting, because during the election, when he had his study ready to send to me, there was some politics involved. The government did not want him to release the information, because it was during an election. That is when that information should have been in front of Canadians.

The government played games and threatened some of us by saying that the report should go only to me and that I was not to release it to anyone. I, of course, said no and that I would release it to Canadians and share it with parliamentarians, because the work the parliamentary budget officer does provides transparency.

It was important, because during that time, people wanted to know not only what our goals were in Afghanistan but what the costs would be. Regardless of one's position on the war, it was fundamental that our government tell us the truth about how much this war was going to cost. The government would not do that. Kevin Page did that, and we should thank him for that and for the many other reports he did during his tenure.

It is the job of parliamentarians to make wise decisions, but unless parliamentarians have the facts, it is impossible to make wise decisions. That is why this office was created.

Every new MP, once he or she has gone through the first year here, notes that we go through the estimates process rather quickly. One of the key aspects of the parliamentary budget officer's role is to give us the information we need to break open the numbers. That is why the office was created; it was to help us do our work. If the government holds back information that would allow us to make wise decisions, it is clear what its agenda is.

It is interesting to note that just this past year, we had the unprecedented experience of watching an officer of Parliament, the parliamentary budget officer, take the government to court, because his office could not access basic information. This was astounding coming from a government that said that it would be more accountable, more open and more transparent. The government undermined the PBO from doing his basic job, which was to give information to us.

What did the Parliamentary Budget Officer want? He wanted the government to share with him the numbers for forecasting the cost savings the government would realize in its budget estimates. The government would not provide that information. The President of the Treasury Board said that the government files that information every year. The government files some numbers, but not the forecast that would break open those numbers.

Everyone knows that we cannot just rely on a speech from the Minister of Finance, and certainly not from the President of the Treasury Board, and say that all is well. We need to have input. We need to know what the assumptions are based on. The government would not provide that information, and our PBO had to go to court to get that information from the government. It still has not been forthcoming with that information.

The court case was interesting. I think Mr. Page validated his position and that of his office. I will read from the decision, because it is important to note:

If the majority wants to abolish the position of the parliamentary budget officer, or define his or her mandate somewhat differently, so be it! However, [and this is the important part] it must do so by legislation. Having made the law by statute, it must unmake it by statute. In the meantime, Parliament has no right to ignore its own legislation.

In other words, the government was offside. It was undermining the PBO and therefore undermining Parliament and therefore undermining Canadians. We want to change that with this legislation. With this legislation, my leader is proposing to bring the parliamentary budget office into the position it should have been in from the beginning.

This legislation proposes having a seven-year mandate to allow the person in this position to not only recruit the right people but to become an expert in the field to ensure that there is a proper transition. That is not what we had here. The government knew when the mandate was up, but when our leader and our party pushed to have the mandate extended, which it could have done, the government said that it could not do that and that there needed to be someone new. Did it have anyone new? No. This is a clear question of competence.

We have been left with fixing the mess of the Conservatives yet again, and that is what we will do with this legislation. If they dare oppose it, they will be sending a message to Canadians that they do not care about accountability anymore. They do not care about making sure that there is truth in advertising. They will be like the party before them in just trying to cover things up and not being direct with Canadians.

I am proud to support this legislation. Canadians should have this. This is what we in the NDP mean by true accountability and true transparency.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

June 10th, 2013 / 11:40 a.m.
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NDP

Peter Julian NDP Burnaby—New Westminster, BC

Mr. Speaker, the bill introduced by the member for Outremont, the leader of the official opposition, is very important. It contains ideas that the Conservatives will find revolutionary.

The bill lists the skills required to hold the position of parliamentary budget officer. The incumbent must be bilingual; have experience and knowledge of the federal budget process; and have an appropriate educational background, including a graduate degree in economics, finance or accounting.

The bill states that it is important not to leave the position vacant, as the Conservatives have done, and to ensure, in advance, that there is someone to take over the reins. Here is another idea that the Conservatives will find revolutionary: ensure that the parliamentary budget officer has access to all of the documents required to do his or her job. Incredible. These truly are revolutionary ideas.

Perhaps we ended up in a somewhat difficult position because the Conservatives did not understand the importance of establishing a rigorous process for analyzing the budget, our finances, and the approach advocated in this bill. I will come back to that later. However, it should be said that, had the member for Outremont and Leader of the Opposition's bill already been implemented, we would not be in this same unfortunate position regarding the Conservative government's current and previous budgets.

As members of the House know, I am a former financial administrator. I made a living managing budgets, studying them, analyzing them and making sure that the numbers matched what was in the budget. It is no secret: the NDP already has financial management experience.

By and large, whether we are talking about a Conservative, Liberal, or NDP government, it has been clear for a long time now that New Democrats are the best at managing finances. Those are not my words. This is coming from the Minister of Finance and the federal Department of Finance. For the past 20 years, every time there is a new fiscal period, they keep saying that NDP governments manage the country's finances better than any other government.

The Conservatives are a distant second. However, they are ahead of the Liberals, who are always in last place. I think we can anticipate the Conservatives' slogan for the next election campaign, “Vote Conservative. We are not as bad as the Liberals”. That might be the slogan they will use.

If the Conservatives keep it up, they might surpass the Liberals when it comes to bad financial management and perhaps even corruption—just look at what is happening right now in the Senate and in other areas.

It is quite simple, especially when we look at where the Conservatives have failed. If the type of structure that the Leader of the Opposition is proposing for the parliamentary budget officer had been in place, as is the case in a number of other countries, including the United States—my colleague from Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie talked about this—the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, South Korea, Australia, we could have avoided the problems related to the F-35s that my colleague from Edmonton—Strathcona mentioned and everything related to the deficit and poor financial management. I am referring, of course, to the $2 million limousine that was sent to India, all the problems surrounding the G8 summit in Muskoka, and all the wrongdoing by Bev Oda, Mike Duffy, and Pamela Wallin.

All these problems could have been avoided if the Conservatives' guiding principle had been to manage the country's finances properly. It would have made a difference. Having a parliamentary budget officer in place also would have made a difference.

Despite all the poor financial management, not one Conservative MP stood up, before last week, to say that we could not go on this way. Canadians should not have to watch their quality of life erode, or do without housing or access to employment insurance benefits when they need them just because the Conservatives are incapable of managing finances properly. This would have made a difference.

On this side of the House, we believe that putting those financial structures in place and using the NDP model to make sure there is pure financial accountability in the federal government right across the country, we can ensure a better quality of life. We can avoid the kinds of problems that we have seen repeatedly from the government. It is a government that is simply incapable of properly managing the finances of the country.

We seem to constantly have the Prime Minister going off with his pet projects, rather than putting the fundamentals in place to make sure we have the kinds of things that Canadians need for their quality of life.

For example, when there are 300,000 people on the streets of our nation, the government should ensure there is employment insurance so that when people lose their jobs, they have the wherewithal to put food on the table. It should make sure that our health care system improves. Those are the kinds of investments that we need, but we are not seeing that from the Conservative government. This is a fundamental problem.

We have a different belief of how this country can be prosperous and how Canadians can have a better quality of life. They can say on that side of the House that they have created hundreds of thousands of low-paying jobs for temporary foreign workers; on this side of the House, we believe in creating high-paying jobs for Canadians. That is the kind of approach that we would take in government.

The member for Edmonton—St. Albert was so very clear last week. I said that up until now, no Conservative MP has stood up for proper financial management. No single Conservative MP has done that. I think that in a very real sense, tragically, they have all betrayed their constituents.

However, one member, the member for Edmonton—St. Albert, actually stood up on principle and resigned from the Conservative caucus last week. He spoke about ministerial opulence. He spoke about the spending scandals. He said "I no longer recognize much of the party that I joined".

That is a harsh indictment of a Conservative government that is simply incapable of even effectively managing the nation's finances. They certainly have not contributed to the quality of life that Canadians need to see.

I think it is fair to say that an increasing number of Canadians right across the country are saying that we can no longer afford to have a Conservative government in this nation. They are looking forward to 2015, when they will be electing, for the first time, an NDP government that actually takes proper financial management as an important principle. As the ministry of finance has been saying for 20 years straight, New Democrats manage finances better than any other party.

We balance the books. We pay down debt. What we do is simply take wise financial counsel, as millions of families across this country do. What they do is put priorities first. They do not invest in pet projects; they invest in making sure that the quality of life of Canadians is taken care of. That is what we will be doing in 2015, with a parliamentary budget officer fully in place to boot.

I can hardly wait for 2015, and I think a lot of Canadians feel the same way.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

June 10th, 2013 / 11:50 a.m.
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NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise today to express my support for Bill C-476, the excellent private member’s bill introduced by the member for Outremont and leader of the official opposition.

When the Conservatives were first elected, they made a great deal of noise about transparency and accountability. They were going to clean house in Ottawa. That was the background to their establishment of the position of parliamentary budget officer. It was, indeed, a very good idea. Many countries have institutions, agencies or offices like that. However, there was a small glitch. The manner in which they established the position was far from perfect. Was this deliberate—a lot of talk, but only a little action? Was their doing things too quickly and ineptly just a sign of their incompetence? It is difficult to say. The future and historians may perhaps be able to tell us one day.

Now, however, they appear to be regretting the very existence of the parliamentary budget officer. Indeed, the former parliamentary budget officer did his job highly professionally and found some very disturbing things. To be sure, he examined the federal budget. He produced his annual report on financial viability and also considered some very specific matters. For example, he revealed the true cost of the F-35s when the government was attempting to pull wool over our eyes. He is one of many experts who said that it was not necessary to raise the retirement age to 67. He revealed the cost of the Safe Streets and Communities Act. Not only that, but as my colleague from Ottawa Centre mentioned earlier, he gave us details about the costs of our mission in Afghanistan.

The interesting thing is how the Conservatives reacted to all of this. Did they say that they would work with the parliamentary budget officer in the interests of the country? After all, it is in the interest of the country and all Canadians for things to run as efficiently as possible. No, because that would have quickly damaged their electoral and partisan interests. They therefore began to do everything possible—absolutely everything—to prevent the parliamentary budget officer from doing his job.

The Conservatives are prepared to spy on Canadians, but they do not seem to like the idea of having a legitimate agency look at what they themselves are doing. What did they do? They denied the PBO access to the information he needed. When his mandate came to an end, they simply did not renew it and have not permanently filled the position. That is how they treat just about anyone who dares say anything against their policies.

Nevertheless, the PBO does very important work. We need an institution that is able to provide an independent opinion on budgetary issues. The Americans have understood that. I had the opportunity to visit the Congressional Budget Office in Washington. It is rather impressive. It has 235 employees and a budget of nearly $50 million. However, they manage to save much more. Is it 10, 20, 30 or 100 times more? We will see. Most importantly, this agency is respected because it is independent. People have told us that they do not always like the agency's findings, but they respect it nevertheless because they know it is an independent agency. This is not the kind of thing the Conservatives like to hear because they try to politicize everything, including the public service, the colour of airplanes, and I could go on. There is a long list.

An independent PBO is essential because our world is becoming increasingly complex, as are our financial and budgetary operations. This does not explain how the Conservatives managed to misplace $3 billion. However, aside from that, we need an independent opinion.

This bill proposes that the parliamentary budget officer be given a clear, specific mandate, free from political influence, so that the individual can carry out his or her duties for parliamentarians and all Canadians.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

June 10th, 2013 / 11:55 a.m.
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Outremont Québec

NDP

Thomas Mulcair NDPLeader of the Opposition

Mr. Speaker, five minutes will be enough. As you saw from the speeches, there is consensus in the House. The only thing we need now is to hear from the government.

This Conservative government was first elected in early 2006. It promised to bring more openness to Canadians and to establish such institutions as the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to better serve Canadians. It talked a good game, but it still needs to walk the talk. This is the first time that the French translation, “faut-il que les bottines suivent les babines”, is funnier than the original, which was “walk the talk”.

Well, since then, they have done exactly the opposite.

Let us look at the Conservative track record on accountability and on transparency.

Conservatives promised more transparency and more accountability.

When I was in Washington recently, I had occasion to visit the Congressional Budget Office, which was essentially the model that inspired the creation of our own parliamentary budget office. The idea is simply to say that government finances are complex and the government controls the whole ministry.

Contrary to the case with the Americans, which has a pure separation from the executive, the legislative and the judiciary, we separate the elected functions from the judiciary, but our executive sits in the front row. We do not have the same airtight separation, so it is even more important when we have a partisan person controlling it, whether it is treasury or whether it is finance, to be able to give real information in real time to the public so that they can rely on it and know what is happening with their money.

Of all the things we do here, I dare say that deciding how taxpayers' money is spent and how it is accounted for are among the most important.

This group is headed up by the former head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Canadian citizens this, Canadian that. The Conservatives lost track of $3.1 billion in the past few months. So much for giving lessons to other people. That is why it is important that we look at the track record of the Conservatives.

One of the other things the Conservatives promised was a public appointments commission. Do hon. members remember that? I do. They offered only one person who could possibly head that up, a man named Gwyn Morgan. Where does that name reappear? We might notice his name reappearing regularly in everything to do with SNC-Lavalin. Why? He is the chairman of the board.

Fast forward to Arthur Porter: come on down. Talk about public appointments. That is what we would have had with the Conservatives, a lot more Arthur Porters.

In their 2006 platform, Conservatives promised to strengthen the Access to Information Act. Let us look at the facts. This one is worthwhile.

A decade ago, in 1999-2000, the federal access to information system disclosed all the requested information over 40% of the time. By the time the Liberals had finished messing with the system, it was down to 28%. However, members should listen to this: it has plummetted by almost half again. In 2009-2010, the last full reporting year—and it has become even worse since then—in only 15% of cases were citizens were getting the information they are asking for.

That is the Conservative government that preached transparency and preached accountability.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

This is the same Prime Minister who promised Canadians that he would “never appoint senators”. That is a promise he has broken exactly 59 times, a record in terms of appointments to the Senate, and we see what sort of quality we have. When they get caught defrauding taxpayers to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, it is the Prime Minister's Office, backed up by a million-dollar slush fund, that starts cutting cheques to shut them up. That is quite a lesson in transparency and accountability.

They promised that an ethics commissioner would be responsible for both sides of the House. Obviously, they never followed through.

What could be easier and more important than to show respect for the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer?

As several speakers have clearly shown, since this happened—as they will ignore anything that does not come directly from the elves in the Prime Minister's Office—they will withhold funding and refuse to comply with the parliamentary budget officer.

Bill C-476 is intended to revitalize and protect this institution for one single purpose: to protect the public interest and the public's right to know.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

April 29th, 2013 / 11:05 a.m.
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Outremont Québec

NDP

Thomas Mulcair NDPLeader of the Opposition

moved that Bill C-476, An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Parliamentary Budget Officer), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, this is a time when opposition members and those who are not on the government side of the House can present their ideas for improving our institutions and society by way of private members' bills.

My goal is to introduce Bill C-476 and get it passed so that our Parliamentary Budget Officer is given greater permanence and protection. We saw the need for this recently in a court decision that I will talk about later in my speech.

First, let us not forget that, before they first came to power in 2006, the theme of the Conservatives' election campaign was accountability. They told us that, if they were elected, from that point on, the government would be accountable to Parliament and to Canadians.

This plan to make government more accountable included several key components. For example, the Conservatives were going to be accountable for their budget choices by creating a neutral, credible, independent organization to provide budget information to MPs and, hence, to voters. Imagine our surprise when we learned that, as soon as they appointed Kevin Page, the first Parliamentary Budget Officer, they tried to control him, to crack down on him and to tell him what to say, as they do with all other areas of public administration.

That is the background behind what we are going to talk about. Perhaps it is not surprising, since one of the other key components of the Conservatives' plan to make government more accountable included fixed election dates, which they never respected.

The Conservatives promised that there would be a person responsible for senior-level public appointments. That person was never appointed. Yes, the Conservatives did suggest a person of their choosing, but then they told us that, if we did not agree with their choice, there would be no one appointed to that position. No one has been appointed.

The Conservatives tried to do the same thing here, which is the root of the problem.

From the beginning the Conservatives promised a lot of things with regard to accountability, but unfortunately, whether it was with regard to fixed date elections, which they have never respected, or with regard to an appointments officer, who was going to help us make appointments at the highest level and find the best person instead of the best member of the party of the government, that has gone by the wayside.

What we are about to see in a little demonstration is what happened to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, who was supposed to be a bit like the congressional budget officer in the U.S., highly respected and credible. There is so much respect for the institution even when people do not agree. We should not look to the Conservatives for respect for institutions in any way, shape or form.

The Conservatives wanted someone who would repeat their talking points, then they met Kevin Page. They did not count on somebody who intended to actually do his job and would expose Conservative economic incompetence, one of their strong suits. Kevin Page looked at the 2008 economic and fiscal update. Even in the face of an economic crisis, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance insisted there would be no deficit. Kevin Page said that was not plausible. It turned out that we had the largest deficit in Canadian history.

We must not forget that the proposed purchase of the F-35s was the greatest fiasco in military procurement history in Canada. Even as costs soared, the Conservatives insisted that the total cost of the planes would be $17.6 billion. In his 2012 report, Kevin Page said it would be closer to $29.3 billion. In fact, it was even higher than that. The Conservatives attacked him viciously when he came out with those reports. It was very personal because he refused to take the Conservative talking points.

The Conservatives claimed that OAS was unaffordable and raised the eligibility age to 67, taking nearly $13,000 out of the pockets of seniors. What was interesting for us was that the Prime Minister courageously made that announcement at a conference of billionaires in the Swiss Alps. We continue to invite the Prime Minister to go to Timmins or Sudbury and tell hardrock miners there that they have not worked hard enough in their life and he is going to take $13,000 out of their pockets and make them work to age 67. The PBO report contradicted the government again, proving that the current OAS system is absolutely sustainable, as everybody else who looked at it has concluded.

The list goes on.

The Conservatives led the public into error with the cost of the war in Afghanistan.

They tried to fool the public regarding the real cost of their approach to crime.

The most extraordinary sham they perpetrated recently has to do with infrastructure costs. When they tabled the budget, they had the audacity to say they were going to increase infrastructure spending.

Our team proved to journalists that that was completely false. Instead, the Conservatives cut billions of dollars and eliminated tens of thousands of jobs. Actually, they are very good at that. I must give credit where credit is due.

As for their ability to communicate phoney numbers and statistics to journalists, it took 48 hours for everyone to realize that we were telling the truth. Fortunately, we had the Parliamentary Budget Officer to confirm everything.

I will never forget the minister referring to “that individual” in the House. I remember hearing him say that. It was not Kevin Page. It was not the Parliamentary Budget Officer. He did not even have a name, a title, a role, or a function. He was “that individual”. This is the Conservatives' mindset. If they cannot control it or cannot tell it what to do, it will be attacked.

It is interesting for us that in the current process we have someone now occupying that role on an interim basis who has followed through on some of the things; for example, listening to the court decision that said that the PBO was allowed to require government departments and agencies to produce full reports. However, that has not stopped the Conservatives.

This whole selection process is contrary to what happened the first time. In the first go-round, I was the NDP's finance critic. I was consulted by the government. I had a chance to interview and meet with Kevin Page. We gave our approval to his appointment. The Conservatives knew they were not going to renew him. They have never talked to us since. To this day, we have not been consulted for one second.

What is also coming out of the selection process is—a good French expression for it is un concours “paqueté”. They know in advance who they are putting into that job. They are going through the motions now of pretending to hire someone.

The Conservatives have no interest whatsoever in accountability. The reality is the Conservatives never wanted accountability and never wanted to give Canadians a better understanding of how public money is being spent. They wanted a sympathetic ear, someone to prop up their misguided spending plans. The finance minister said, word for word in January, that he hoped that the PBO would be “...a sounding board, a testing board” for government policies.

Conservatives knew that Kevin Page's mandate was ending in March and they made no effort to find a qualified replacement. They refused to extend his term until a suitable candidate could be found. Now we are left without a full-time parliamentary budget officer. That is the hypocrisy of the Conservatives.

This is what we are trying to fix with Bill C-476. We want to have, not just a parliamentary budget officer, but a parliamentary budget office. We want to make sure that we protect it and the PBO becomes an officer of Parliament so that there could no longer be the type of interference that the Conservatives tried. Not that they got away with it with Kevin Page. They seriously underestimated the man. However, we are going to make sure that no other government would be able to do that, that both sides of the House, whether a backbencher on the government side, a member of any of the opposition parties, or an independent MP would be allowed full access to objective information.

It is critically important that we have this position and this individual who is responsible for keeping the government accountable in the public interest. If we do not have complete and accurate information, how can we make the most important decisions that are incumbent upon us on how to spend public funds? That is the whole idea.

What is fascinating is the fact that the Conservatives were honest when they proposed the position. I sincerely believe that. However, it is surprising to see them so willing to repeat nonsense day in and day out. Conservative members read the documents that are given to them, without stopping to think for one second about the glaring contradiction between what they promised in terms of responsibility and accountability and what they are actually doing.

Nevertheless, we in the NDP are here to remind the public that the Conservatives are being incredibly hypocritical when they claim to want to act in the public interest and give accurate numbers.

We are proposing this legislation today in order to ensure that the Conservatives can never again interfere with the work of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

We would bring in amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act and would make sure that the PBO had a clear mandate that was going to be respected. Do not forget, the Conservatives had given him a clear mandate, they just tried to frustrate it every step of the way. They are turning their backs on their own legislation.

What was so interesting in Justice Harrington's ruling just a few days ago was that he reminded the Conservatives that one of the biggest mistakes we make in Canada is to take our institutions for granted. This is worth bearing in mind because there is a lot of talk about their failure to respect our institutions.

Separation of powers is in the news a lot these days. We saw one minister resign for writing a letter to the Tax Court. That follows the parliamentary tradition set down in Westminster. We saw the Minister of Finance use his ministerial letterhead to write to the CRTC and he is still sitting there. That is a failure to respect a parliamentary tradition. All of a sudden, the rules do not apply depending on which minister it is and who is involved. A rule is a rule and the rule of law is the same in Parliament as it is anywhere else. The failure by the Conservatives to respect that rule shows that they do not respect our institutions.

Let us look at what the judge said in reminding the Conservatives that they cannot just decide on their own not to listen to a law that is duly adopted by this Parliament. Justice Harrington stated:

If the majority [of the government] wants to abolish the position of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, or define his or her mandate somewhat differently, so be it! However, it must do so by legislation [by law]. Having made that law by statute, it must unmake it by statute. In the meantime, Parliament has no right to ignore its own legislation.

That is the lesson they received.

The Conservatives think that they can ride roughshod over any person or institution that disagrees with them. The Federal Court confirmed the current Parliamentary Budget Officer is too important for that sort of arrogant political attack. If the Conservatives will not comply with their own law giving the PBO access to data, the courts will intervene.

We were relieved to see that even the interim Parliamentary Budget Officer is now using that ruling to order the government to provide the figures that we requested on the disastrous impact of its cuts to the various departments and agencies. The Conservatives can try all they like to rule with their blue papers that the ministers and backbenchers are reading slavishly. However, the public knows what is going on here.

The Conservatives are trying to hide the truth about their choices. Last month, 55,000 jobs were lost in Canada. When the Conservatives came to power, we had a trade surplus of $19 billion, and we now have a deficit of $66 billion. That is the devastating impact of how they are handling the economy.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer was telling the truth. The Conservatives were trying to hide the truth. Our bill seeks to restore the balance of power between the majority and the members.

Bill C-476 would create an independent Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, separating it from the Library of Parliament where it is now; broaden the PBO's mandate and access to relevant information; require annual reports to the House of Commons and Senate; create a streamlined non-partisan process for appointment; and ensure that the PBO is capable of understanding and working in both languages.

The Conservatives seem more content and intent on undermining our system of transparency. We know that we are capable of better, that Canadians deserve better.

Ever since the Conservatives came to power, they have tried to convince Canadians that they have to be happy with less. That is their approach to everything: the economy, the environment and the social sector. We know that we must fight hard for our institutions, because our entire democratic system will be lost if we let their behaviour prevail.

That is why we will always take a stand to defend our democratic institutions, whether it be the executive, the legislative or the judicial branch, so that the Canadian public continues to have a stable government.

We deserve better than the Conservative government and, in 2015, we will have better with the first NDP government in our history.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

April 29th, 2013 / 11:15 a.m.
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NDP

Peggy Nash NDP Parkdale—High Park, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the leader of the NDP for his impassioned defence of the principle of accountability and the rule of law.

I want to remind members that when the Parliamentary Budget Officer first began accurately reporting the cost of government spending he was attacked and undermined by the government. When he spoke about austerity measures being a drag on our GDP and increasing unemployment, he was again attacked by the government.

Now we find the government's hand-picked choice for interim PBO is producing the same numbers and identifying that austerity measures brought in by this government are undermining our economy, undermining our growth and our GDP, and increasing unemployment.

Could the Leader of the Opposition comment on the recent report and on the undermining of the institution of the PBO?

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

April 29th, 2013 / 11:15 a.m.
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NDP

Thomas Mulcair NDP Outremont, QC

Mr. Speaker, precisely because the Parliamentary Budget Officer refuses to blindly parrot the talking points of the Conservatives, of course, Kevin Page was attacked, but the Conservatives are not much happier with the interim Parliamentary Budget Officer, who is using the court decision to compel them to produce those documents.

With regard to the failure of the austerity measures of the Conservatives, let us bear in mind that contrary to what they affirmed when they first brought out their budget and were trying to get people to believe that they would increase spending on infrastructure, it took 48 hours to prove the point, as we had said from the beginning, that they were actually reducing it. Now everybody realizes that we were right. However, the Conservatives are particularly able at trying to snow people. Sometimes if enough numbers are thrown up, a number of people can be baffled.

Once the dust has settled on that exercise, though, people realize the importance of a Parliamentary Budget Officer in seeing through that type of snow job from the Conservatives, so that no parliamentarian in the future would ever have to be at the beck and call of a government that refuses to give the real numbers.

We want to strengthen the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, create a parliamentary budget office and make sure it is protected by Parliament.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

April 29th, 2013 / 11:20 a.m.
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Saint Boniface Manitoba

Conservative

Shelly Glover ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance

Mr. Speaker, I must admit I was quite shocked at how partisan the speech was from my colleague, given the subject, but perhaps I should not have expected more than such partisan rhetoric from the opposition leader.

However, I do have a question for the opposition leader. We are talking about a private member's bill that would make the Parliamentary Budget Office its own unique office. It would be removed from the purview of the Library of Parliament.

We all know that the NDP submitted a budget without costing, which was quite interesting for Canadians to learn about. I would like to know what the cost of this private member's bill is, because there would be an increase in staffing, administration and IT costs.

I must add, as a member of the government, that we respect the parliamentary budget office's work to this end. There is a report out this morning; I look forward to reading it.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

April 29th, 2013 / 11:20 a.m.
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NDP

Thomas Mulcair NDP Outremont, QC

Mr. Speaker, the best starting point in response to the member of Parliament for Saint Boniface is to ask her to produce the document she just said we tabled.

She just said that the NDP produced a budget. That is false. She knows its false. We know its false, but she sits there trying to send out that sort of message, knowing that what she has just said is completely false. That is the best answer for the member of Parliament for Saint Boniface.

I have a question for her. How can she look the constituents in Saint Boniface in the eye when she promised more accountability and transparency and the government is doing everything it can to hide the facts? How can she look the constituents in Saint Boniface in the eye when she promised fixed election dates and the government has not once complied with the legislation? How can she look the constituents in Saint Boniface in the eye and tell them that the government took the funding away from La Liberté, the only French-language newspaper in Manitoba? After all the promises they made, how do they have the nerve to look their constituents in the eye? That is my question for them.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

April 29th, 2013 / 11:20 a.m.
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Conservative

Andrew Saxton Conservative North Vancouver, BC

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in response to the motion from the hon. member on Bill C-476, an act that would make the Parliamentary Budget Officer an officer of Parliament.

With this act, my hon. colleague opposite wants to completely change the structure and mandate of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

If this bill were to succeed, it would take the Parliamentary Budget Officer out of the Library of Parliament and establish the position instead as a separate officer of Parliament, with its own departmental organization and spending authorizations. My question is simply this: why do we need to change the mandate and governance structure of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer when they are serving their intended purpose?

I would like to remind the members of this House that it was this government that established this office in the first place, and making it part of the Library of Parliament was a key element of our Federal Accountability Act.

As part of the Library of Parliament, this office operates independently of the government and answers to Parliament, and it is Parliament, not the government, that approves its funding level.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, strengthening accountability and increasing transparency in Canada's public institutions has been a top priority of our government. Through amendments to the Lobbying Act, the Access to Information Act and other measures, the Federal Accountability Act and its accompanying action plan have made the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, parliamentarians and public service employees more accountable than ever before in Canadian history.

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, the position of the Parliamentary Budget Officer within the Library of Parliament.

Its mandate is to provide independent analysis to the Senate and the House of Commons on 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.

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

This, in turn, helps parliamentarians hold the government to account, and that is exactly what this officer has been mandated and resourced to do.

We may not always agree with his conclusions, but the Parliamentary Budget Officer has sparked debate and enriched the political dialogue in Canada. Regardless of whether the PBO's conclusions sometimes differ from those of the government, what is important is that Parliament now has its own objective source of analysis and research on fiscal and economic matters that is prepared independently from the government. This is a sign of the strength and maturity of our Canadian democracy.

However, the changes proposed in Bill C-476 from the hon. member opposite would have several serious impacts on this office. For example, because of the vague, broadly worded and proactive mandate proposed for the PBO, the position will become less responsive to the research and analytical needs of parliamentarians. At the same time, it will create confusion between the respective roles of the PBO and the Auditor General. We could also expect to see some duplication of functions between the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Library of Parliament and a lack of alignment between the services provided to parliamentarians. We would also very likely see an increase in the costs associated with the PBO and increased draws on the fiscal framework and government appropriations.

If this bill is passed, the office will become a separate department in its own right, with its own staffing and administrative support requirements. This means more of the PBO's funding would be devoted to bureaucracy—particularly for services such as corporate administrative support for information technology, which are currently shared with the Library of Parliament—rather than to providing services to parliamentarians.

The government understands the importance of accountability and transparency. That is why, when we established this office, we made it fully independent of the government in its operations and funding. I am confident that, under its current governance structure, this office will continue to play a vital role in strengthening accountability in Canada’s public institutions.

There is an old adage that says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Let us put this matter into perspective. Why tinker with the government's structure of the Parliamentary Budget Officer when we have economic priorities to achieve?

More than 900,000 net new jobs have been created in Canada since July 2009. Our priority is creating more jobs, more economic growth and more long-term prosperity for Canadians.

We are on the right track. Canadians and parliamentarians are well served by the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The Library of Parliament has launched the necessary process to find the next Parliamentary Budget Officer, and the government has appointed the current parliamentary librarian to the position on an interim basis. She will capably guide the office until the appointment of the next Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Our intention is not to remove this position from the Library of Parliament, where it has the mandate, independence and resources it needs to fulfill its mandate. Our intention is to leave well enough alone and continue focusing on creating jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for Canadian families.

Parliamentary Budget Officer ActPrivate Members' Business

April 29th, 2013 / 11:30 a.m.
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Liberal

Stéphane Dion Liberal Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Mr. Speaker, the leader of the official opposition has introduced a bill that the Liberal caucus will have no trouble supporting, because it is something we have been calling for for a long time.

Indeed, the first motion calling for the PBO to be made an independent officer of Parliament, tabled in the House of Commons on February 3, 2009, was sponsored by our Liberal colleague, the member for Markham—Unionville. His motion also called on the government to “co-operate fully with the Parliamentary Budget Officer on all matters with respect to which he is called upon to report”.

If that motion from February 3, 2009, had been implemented, we would all be better off. The Parliamentary Budget Officer would have been better able to do his job independently.

Better late than never, which is why the Liberal Party supports Bill C-476 and why it is urging the government to support it as well, so that it can be examined in committee. We want this bill to be examined in committee because we think it is in the best interests of the public.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer needs to have more independence and a more meaningful role. The Parliamentary Budget Officer must report directly to Parliament, without having to go through the Library of Parliament.

That said, I doubt that these changes—although they are welcome and necessary—will eliminate the hostility the Conservative government has shown for anyone who refuses to blindly sing their praises or cover up their mistakes.

What is the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer? This person's role is to provide objective and independent analysis that may, on occasion, call into question the validity of the government's views and initiatives.

The Prime Minister cannot stand that. It has become clear that this government reacts very poorly and very aggressively to criticism and to independent thinking, whether from officers of Parliament, government scientists, foreign observers, the media or even government backbenchers.

The government would be better off keeping an open mind to these independent analyses. It might learn something that would help it fix past mistakes and avoid making new ones.

No one can deny that the Parliamentary Budget Officer produced some excellent analyses. Instead of shooting the messenger, the government should have listened to and respected what he had to say.

Here are some valuable PBO contributions: he analyzed the long-term cost of the Afghanistan mission; he showed how much the provincial penitentiary systems will have to pay in order to comply with the Conservatives' flawed crime agenda legislation; he produced a thorough report on the true cost of the F-35, generally considered accurate; and he proved that the old age security program was fiscally sustainable with the 65-year qualifying age, which was an assessment also echoed by the OECD.

The government responded to these obviously credible analyses with contempt, denial and attacks, dismissing them out of hand. Of course, the government was not obliged to accept the Parliamentary Budget Officer's analyses and conclusions. The government had every right to contest them.

However, the government should then have provided its own costed, detailed analyses before taking a stand on such important issues. Before imposing its decisions on the people, a competent government would have agreed, even demanded, to have these issues studied in detail.

Does the age of eligibility for old age security need to increase from 65 to 67? That is a fundamental question. Canada is the only modern, democratic country where the government has made that type of decision without providing any serious research to back it up and without having Parliament debate it thoroughly.

Instead of profiting from such a great Parliamentary Budget Officer—whose term just ended—and instead of engaging in productive dialogue with him, the government did nothing but viciously attack him as an individual.

In 2009, the government tried to cut the PBO funding by $1.3 million, one-third of the total budget. Public pressure eventually forced the government to find that money through the estimates.

In March of 2010, the PBO published a report showing the government would not balance the budget in 2014-15. The finance minister dismissed the PBO as wrong, but was unable or unwilling to provide any analysis to substantiate this rejection of the PBO's projections. Today, we all know that it is the finance minister who proved himself wrong.

When the PBO published a document showing the old age security program was sustainable in February of 2012, the Minister of Finance called Kevin Page unbelievable, unreliable and incredible.

Conservative senators moved to find Kevin Page in contempt for using the courts to access government spending data. The government refused to give Kevin Page information to which he is legally entitled under the Parliament of Canada Act. The government changed the PBO job vacancy notice in order to find someone ready to make compromises. Compromises?

Should someone compromise the truth? Should someone compromise in an effort to please the government and help cover up its mistakes? Should someone compromise on what should be disclosed to or hidden from the public, from taxpayers? It is not the Parliamentary Budget Officer's job to fiddle with the numbers or mask reality. His role is to produce precise, rigorous, uncompromising analyses.

What can we expect from a government that will not stop undermining the Parliamentary Budget Officer along with every other aspect of parliamentary democracy?

The government and the Prime Minister have never ceased to abuse the Parliament of Canadians. In 2008, they broke their own law on fixed election dates. They prorogued Parliament twice in order to circumvent the Commons, and they refused to hand over the F-35 documents despite a House order. They used time allocation or closure 32 times since the 2011 election. They forced committees to meet in camera, hidden from the public, for important debates and witness selection. They made improper use of omnibus budget bills to alter acts of Parliament that had little to do with the budget. They attacked the Veterans Ombudsman. Then we had Bev Oda misleading Parliament on the serious question of who altered a federal document.

Faced with a government that openly displays such contempt for parliamentary democracy, that refuses to hear any criticism, that is so suspicious of independent thought and is so afraid of the truth, any measures to help strengthen our Canadian parliamentary institutions deserve our attention.

That is why Bill C-476 should be examined, supported in principle and thoroughly scrutinized in committee. In addition to being very useful for the future of the parliamentary budget office, which is a new institution, the debate on this bill and all the questions it raises could—or so we hope—incite the government to really think about the true meaning of parliamentary democracy.