Page leaving office with a bang
Kevin Page turns out the lights in his office and on a life in the public service March 25. So far, his immediate plans do not extend beyond awaking with a hangover March 26.
But the outgoing Parliamentary Budget Officer is proving the master of the loud, brash exit; a man who will not go gentle into the night or take a solitary walk in the snow.
Thursday, in his last major report, he reported a $1.5-billion shortfall on the federal government’s budget for the program to replace two 45-year-old naval supply ships, just the latest in a litany of reports Page has produced putting him at odds with government spending estimates.
It is typical of Page’s work — solid, well-vetted and researched, another hammer blow to Stephen Harper’s kneecap, and another report to light up the House of Commons.
It builds on a body of work that included reports on costs of the F-35 stealth fighters, the government’s law-and-order agenda, the Afghanistan mission and the unresolved battle for details of $5.2 billion in cuts outlined in the 2012 budget, a test of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s contention that 70 per cent of the cuts would be from the “back office.’’
In the final days of his mandate, a parade of detractors and backers have taken up sides over a man who still thinks of himself as a boy of blue-collar Thunder Bay who works as hard with numbers as his father did over 50 years in the paper mills and the old Hawker-Siddeley and Caterpillar plants. The old hands at discrediting Page include Treasury Board President Tony Clement, Flaherty and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, but they have been lately joined by two senior bureaucrats in Clement’s department who have questioned Page’s methodology and accountability and suggested his numbers should be vetted by the government department before they are released. In the Senate, the independent Anne Cools called recent comments by Page “provocative and inflammatory . . . intolerable and unacceptable. Contemptuous and unparliamentary, they are constitutional vandalism.’’
She won a ruling that could lead to a Senate order for Page to drop his quest at Federal Court for a clarification of his mandate, a move that would only inflame passions around the parliamentary budget officer.
On the other side, Page has been canonized by opposition MPs, particularly NDP Leader Tom Mulcair who has backed him in his court fight, attempted to have his mandate extended and has introduced a private member’s bill that would make the PBO an officer who reports directly to Parliament. The irony, of course, is that Page or a credible successor would make life hell for a neophyte NDP government in its first turn with the keys of the public treasury.
That’s because there is nothing adversarial about Page, a point he reinforces as he discussed his last big report over a bite — he’s partial to what he calls “el cheapo” lunches at the Soup Guy at a downtown food court.
It was a chat that was devoid of any “gotcha” moments on government spending and included his disdain of partisan politics and the diminution of Canadian institutions. He likens Ottawa’s ship-building budget to what he calls a game of “perfect baseball.’’ The game never plays out that way over nine innings, just as a new house never comes in under cost because of “adjustments” along the way. That was before Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose rose Thursday under opposition questioning, conceding the possibility of “adjustments” over the life of the project.
“I’ll be out of here soon and two weeks later, no one will remember my name,’’ he says. “That kind of stuff isn’t important to me. The question is do institutions matter?’’
When Canadians fought in wars, they fought for institutions and they fought for freedom, “but they certainly didn’t fight for the partisan politics you and I are talking about now.’’
Without the work of an independent budget officer, the government has neutered Parliamentarians, Page says, because their currency is information.
“If you give Parliamentarians nothing, then where is their value? What are they doing? They are completely undermined.
“The government is going to say I’m not really into accountability right now, I am into power . . . I am into delivering stuff, holding me accountable just makes my life more miserable.
“But that is the job of Parliament, including backbench government MPs who are not part of the executive.’’
He is making noise as he departs, he says, but he is not pounding his own drum. His work is beating the drum. Losing five years of hard work and sweat to an emasculated office would sadden him, sure, but it would be a loss for the country.
“At least I can say I did my best. I’m not going to say I did it my way, but I did my best.’’
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer.