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Msg  4512 of 62304  at  2/15/2008 4:24:39 AM  by


Harper Tories water down impartial budget post, insiders say



Harper Tories water down impartial budget post, insiders say

February 15, 2008

OTTAWA -- As the Harper government puts the finishing touches on an office that's supposed to scrutinize Ottawa's budgeting, opposition critics and a source familiar with the process say what's emerging is a watered-down version of the fearless watchdog promised by Tories.

In the last election the Conservatives pledged to create an independent fiscal referee to deliver "truth in budgeting," with free rein to issue estimates of Ottawa's finances. The promise followed years of heated debate over Liberal governments running windfall surpluses that materialized only after it was too late to spend them on anything but debt repayment.

"Governments cannot be held to account if Parliament does not know the accurate state of public finances," the Tory election platform said.

To this end, sources say, a search committee has confidentially recommended to the Harper government that it hire former Finance Department official Kevin Page for the post. While former colleagues say Mr. Page is a strong economist and "no pushover," concerns remain about how much manoeuvring the job, as designed, would afford him.

Critics say the new parliamentary budget officer, who will operate out of the Library of Parliament, will be a far cry from the Auditor-General, for instance, because the job is turning out to be more of an interpreter than an auditor, with the power to defy Ottawa when necessary.

For instance, Library of Parliament staff who designed the post told MPs at a Commons committee this week that they don't see a need for the new office to produce its own alternate forecasts of Ottawa's fiscal position, saying it would duplicate existing efforts.

"I do not think the [office] should provide an alternative fiscal forecast to the one produced by the Department of Finance," parliamentary librarian William Young told MPs Wednesday.

The source familiar with the job design said it's been changed substantially from the original concept and, if it relies on Finance forecasts, will be beholden to the department.

"In a one-sentence description, this person is to interpret the material of the Department of Finance for parliamentarians," the source said.

"I think the person who does this is going to have an impossible job. They're going to be totally dependent upon ... Finance for the analytics."

Liberal finance critic John McCallum said that if the parliamentary budget officer doesn't produce its own forecasts, it will be a far cry from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, for example, which regularly locks horns with the White House's Office of Management and Budget over forecasts.

John McKay, a Liberal MP who once served as a parliamentary secretary to former finance minister Ralph Goodale, speculated that the Finance Department has had undue influence in ensuring a rival forecast won't be offered.

"I can see Finance's sticky little paws all over this. They do not want to have any entity... particularly not an entity from Parliament, [disputing] what their numbers might be for budgetary purposes."

In an e-mailed statement, Tory House Leader Peter Van Loan said the parliamentary budget officer will be free to provide "objective analysis" of budget and economic issues as they see fit. The budget officer reports to the Speakers of the Commons and Senate, not the government, he said.

"The government is committed to respecting the independence of the [position], and to providing this office with whatever information and assistance it requires to fulfill its important mandate."

Allan Darling, a special adviser helping the library establish the new office, said he believes it would be more useful for the new officer to analyze figures provided by government forecasts and then offer its own point of view on how to interpret them, but said that he won't rule out separate fiscal forecasts if parliamentary committees request them.

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