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.