Thank you, Mr. Chair. It's nice to hear that the finance committee is an agreeable committee.
Thank you, Chair, Vice-Chairs, members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. It is an honour to be with you today.
I will be making brief remarks on Bill C-44, particularly on the position of the parliamentary budget officer.
These remarks reflect analysis publicly released by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy, or IFSD, at the University of Ottawa. They include both favourable and unfavourable observations. The bottom line is that amendments are necessary. I am heartened to hear that the government is open to changes.
My perspective is premised on the basic need for senators and members of Parliament to have financial analysis when they vote on spending and tax legislation. Given the uncertainty around projections and cost analysis, we want additional data backed by analysis for parliamentarians. Canada's Parliament needs a strong and independent budget office.
I congratulate the Government of Canada for having introduced a bill that will strengthen the Parliamentary Budget Office.
From this vantage point, a number of proposed changes are favourable. The position will be an officer of Parliament. Parliament will have a role in the selection of the officer. The officer can now be dismissed for cause, as opposed to working at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.
The mandate is being expanded to help political parties cost election platforms. Political parties struggle to find technical expertise to help them cost initiatives in their election platforms. Who better to do this in a non-partisan way than the PBO? It will not be easy to set up the protocols with the public service on information sharing, and with parties on the release and use of PBO analysis, but the benefits of a good process should be significant for parties and voters. This is a complicated endeavour that merits the careful consideration of parliamentarians.
When I took the position as parliamentary budget officer, few people with the requisite experience and skills wanted to be the PBO. During my mandate, there was confusion and tension around responsibilities and accountabilities. The officer position was situated in the Library of Parliament, so there were administrative accountabilities to the chief librarian and mandate accountabilities to Parliament.
The amendments proposed by the government will ensure the accountability of the parliamentary budget officer to Parliament, and may also encourage more people to apply for that position.
I have some less favourable—even unfavourable—observations related to the proposed legislation. I argue that it is essential that four provisions of the proposed legislation be amended to better serve parliamentarians. They deal with purpose, mandate, independence, and access to information.
Without these amendments, the Parliamentary Budget Office could be weakened and less independent than it is currently.
With regard to purpose, the purpose of the PBO must align directly with the core mandate of Parliament. According to Robert Marleau and Camille Monpetit, two Canadian experts on parliamentary procedure, the direct control of national finance is the “great task of modern parliamentary government”. The House of Commons is given the power of the purse, and the PBO plays an indispensable role by providing decision support in the form of economic and fiscal analysis to improve the quality of debate and outcomes for Canadians. The legislation should reflect this type of language. It should be strengthened with this purpose at its core.
The mandate in the proposed legislation is less clear and more restrictive than in the current legislation. It should be clarified. Do senators and MPs want independent economic and fiscal forecasts and related analysis? Do MPs want help with costing and scrutiny of spending and tax legislation? What the PBO will do to serve Parliament should be spelled out in the law very clearly.
For instance, the proposed legislation would no longer allow individual MPs to request costing analysis of government bills or procurement. Their requests would be limited to support on private members' bills. During my time as the PBO—the parliamentary budget officer—we received important requests from MPs to cost wars, fighter planes, and crime bills, among many other things. There is no good reason to restrict this important function of the parliamentary budget officer.
With respect to independence, independence for the parliamentary budget office means being free from political and bureaucratic influence in its work and reporting. An independent parliamentary budget officer should determine the work plan and undertake analysis within the mandate he or she deems important, in the same way that the Auditor General must undertake work in the audit of the public accounts. There should be no requirement to have work plans approved by Speakers of the Senate and/or the House of Commons. This does not exist for the Auditor General.
Given the frequency and volatility of economic information, it is also essential that the parliamentary budget officer publicly release timely reports, even if this means doing so when Parliament is not sitting. The proposed legislation would restrict reporting to only when Parliament is sitting.
With respect to access to information, in my experience, governments and the public service do not like to provide information that will be used to strengthen accountability. You must ask yourselves whether you want to strengthen the information provisions of the parliamentary budget officer. What if the government and public service refuse to provide essential information that the budget officer requires to serve you in your capacity to undertake financial due diligence? Should there be sanctions? Should the PBO have recourse to a federal court?
In closing, I want to make a plea for this Parliament to see the strengthening of the parliamentary budget officer and office as a beginning and not an end. Our estimates system is badly broken.
There is too little analysis on the thousands of dollars of expenditures approved through laws and appropriations. Our financial system needs a better alignment between expenses and the budget.
We need better control gates for accountability of spending and performance.
It is a privilege to be here and a privilege to take your questions. Thank you very much.