A bureaucrat who won’t turtle

Kevin Page is first and foremost — and proudly — a bureaucrat.

Kevin Page is first and foremost — and proudly — a bureaucrat.

He’s a guy from blue-collar Thunder Bay, hardly a household name outside Ottawa. He is known here for his quiet resolve, a man who bikes to work from his suburban bungalow and is more comfortable chowing down at a downtown food court than the parliamentary dining room.

But this time, the resolve of Canada’s first and only parliamentary budget officer has sparked war, and the Conservative government is firing back at the man it hired under legislation it created.

In the government view, the man appointed in minority years to provide “independent analysis to Canadians on the state of the nation’s finances,’’ has become too independent in the majority years. Page may have begun his slow march to martyrdom.

He may have at least sufficiently poisoned the well to have put the brakes on his hope of a smooth transition, handing over the post next year to a member of his office.

Page’s independence has embarrassed this government before, on the cost of the Afghanistan mission, the price of its tough-on-crime provisions, the hidden costs of the F-35 fighter jet procurement.

But this week, when he released a legal opinion maintaining the government was breaking its own law by withholding details from him on departmental spending cuts — and threatening to settle matters in court — the Conservatives no longer hid their pique.

The truthiness, to steal a phrase from Stephen Colbert, came from John Baird, a man who often climbs out from beneath his vanilla talking points when pressed.

It was Baird who explained the government killed the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy because it provided advice that ran counter to Conservative views.

And it was Baird who told the Commons Page’s office had “overstepped its mandate.’’

The following day, Treasury Board President Tony Clement threw opposition complaints about Page from 2009 back across the aisle.

Conservatives in the Senate blocked an appearance from the budget watchdog at their finance committee.

The mandate Page allegedly overstepped is the mandate he was given by the very government now stonewalling him.

He was to be given information in a timely manner by departments to better inform Parliament, in this case the depth of services and personnel to be cut under the 2012 budget.

Page says the government view that he shouldn’t have the information because it’s not convenient to that government is not the way the system is supposed to work.

This is not a man who wakes up looking for a fight, but he has faced similar accusations almost since his 2008 appointment.

Shortly before that year’s election, he released explosive figures on the true cost of the Afghan mission, drawing a rebuke from the Speakers of the Commons and Senate, who felt he had overstepped his mandate because he was embroiled in public debate.

More recently, some thought he had gone too far in asserting that the cabinet had to have known of the higher costs for the F-35s that had not been shared with Parliament or the public.

Page’s future is now a matter of public speculation.

“They have all the arrogance of power and with all that arrogance they are cutting away at the authority and independence of the very people that they appointed in the first place,’’ Liberal interim leader Bob Rae said of the Conservatives.

In essence, the Conservatives gave Page a job, then tried to put him under house arrest because his job often made them look bad.

Page says he doesn’t feel under siege and refuses to be “overwhelmed” by cynicism. “If we turtle on this one,’’ he said, reaching for a hockey fight analogy, “we’re finished.’’

He’s more interested in winning his battle in the court of public and political opinion. Without that, “we’re dead in the water, anyway,’’ he says.

So he heads to the office every day, trying to move the yardsticks.

Democracy Watch and some opposition MPs are pushing the government to give Page more independence and power and protect the position from the vagaries of a government that has the power to fire him.

But that’s an uphill push. This is a government that can be ruthless when it pushes back.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.

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