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Whats the future of the PBO look like?

2009 committee report may be telling

By Michelle Zilio | Sep 6, 2013 3:09 pm

As the recently-appointed Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) settles into his new position, many are wondering what the future of the office, once headed by trailblazer Kevin Page, may look like. Last weeks appointment of Jean-Denis Frchette as the new PBO has been met with skepticism. Unlike his predecessor Page, who brought an extensive budget background from the Department of Finance, the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Privy Council Office, Frchette has spent most of his professional life with the Library of Parliament and has little experience with government budgets. Frchette, who has worked with the library for 27 years, was previously senior director of the librarys Industry, Infrastructure and Resources Division. Frchettes appointment comes after months of speculation from the opposition that the government was looking to replace Page with a less aggressive successor. Page, Canadas first PBO, was critical of the governments economic forecasts, including costing for the F-35 and the war in Afghanistan. He also frequently spoke to media about the offices reports during his time as PBO from 2008 to 2013. There are indications that under library-veteran Frchette, the PBO will become more closely integrated with the library, which reports to the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons. A spokesperson for the library said Friday Frchette was not available to discuss his vision for the PBO, as he was busy settling into his new position. If Frchette maintains his loyalty to the library during his five-year appointment as PBO, a June 2009 report by the Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament on the role of the PBO within

the library may be an indication of where the office is headed. The 33-page report, which contains ten recommendations, generally calls for a closer harmonization between the library and PBO. For example, the fifth recommendation reads: That the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons ask the Parliamentary Information and Research Service of the Library of Parliament and the Parliamentary Budget Officer to standardize their service agreements with the parliamentarians and committees. The recommendation essentially calls for the library and PBO to work at the same pace. For instance, this means a parliamentarian or parliamentary committee could request an evaluation of a particular project under a tight deadline for the PBO, which can take months to deliver its detailed, independent reports. Similar concerns were expressed with regard to recommendation nine, which calls for the PBO to establish a management system similar to the one already in place within the Library for all requests from parliamentarians and committees. This could prove problematic, as the PBO and the library have vastly different management systems. For instance, the PBO only has 17 staff, while the library employs about 350, naturally incurring higher administrative and overhead costs. In a 42-page response to the committees report, the PBO cited an independent legal opinion, which said the librarys administration should support not hinder the PBO in exercising its legislated mandate under the Parliament of Canada Act. Another recommendation addressed the issue of confidentiality, calling for all requests made by parliamentarians or committees to the PBO to remain confidential until the confidentiality agreement is lifted by the party who made the request. In the PBOs implementation report, the office highlighted the proven desire among parliamentarians to make all reports public, appearing to nullify the confidentiality point.

all parliamentarians requesting major projects to date have been strongly supportive of posting PBO analysis on its Web site when the project is finished so that the analysis is made public to all parliamentarians and Canadians for their benefit and scrutiny, read the report. Frchette has not indicated whether he will consider this committees recommendations during his appointment. It also remains unclear how Frchette will interpret his mandate. The PBOs hotly-debate mandate has been to provide parliamentarians with information and expertise to help them hold government to account, and to provide an objective assessment of the governments fiscal forecasts. Pages request for access to departmental records in order to assess the fiscal implications of the 2012 budget had raised questions among critics. Some government officials, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, have argued that Page stepped outside his mandate by making this request. Page asked the Federal Court to clarify his mandate in November 2012. While the court dismissed the request on a technicality earlier this year, Judge Sean Harrington said he considered the PBO independent with the right to seek government information. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also applauded Page for his work as PBO, and Page maintains the PBO was consistent with Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developments (OECD) guidelines. The government maintains that the PBO exceeded its mandate in trying to access this information. Parliamentarians and Canadians will have to wait and see if Frchette will continue to press federal departments, including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Finance Canada, National Defence and Statistics Canada, for the 2012 budget documents.

Frchette only took over the position Tuesday, and he has yet to telegraph the extent to which hell adhere to or depart from Pages tenure. Page as well as the Official Opposition has been careful to not directly criticize Frchette abilities. Rather, NDP Finance Critic Peggy Nash said Frchette clearly has some large shoes to fill following the stellar work by Page, and wished him well. However, Nash raised concerns about the search process for the new PBO. iPolitics reported in June that Conservative Government House Leader Peter Van Loans chief of staff was part of the committee to select a new PBO, raising questions about the transparency of the selection process. The PBO was created in 2006 under the Conservative governments Federal Accountability Act to provide parliament with an independent analysis of the governments finances and Canadian economic trends. According to the governments website, the PBO is an independent officer of the library who reports to the speakers of both chambers.
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