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.