Mr. Mark Adler (York Centre, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo.
I welcome this opportunity to address today's NDP opposition motion. Even though the NDP claims that today's motion is about the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the party has been using it to attack and talk down the Canadian economy as they always do, such as calling our resource sector a disease, sending a delegation down to Washington, D.C., to argue against the creation of Canadian jobs and its determination to impose a $21.5 billion carbon tax.
It is essential that my friends across the way and all Canadians understand just how important Canada's economic and fiscal health is to our Conservative government. Since day one, the economy has been priority one for this government. This government focuses on what matters most to Canadians: jobs, growth and long-term prosperity. We have the strong record to prove it. It is a record that Canadians trust and that has garnered international recognition. As Tom Donohue, president of the American Chamber of Commerce said recently, “The great Canadian miracle is something we should follow”.
However, at the same time that we are proud of our economic accomplishments, we understand that we cannot become complacent. With an uncertain global economy, especially in Europe and the United States, we must remain focused on creating jobs, growth and long-term prosperity. What does this mean? It means making sure that Canada offers the right environment to attract business investment, making sure that we continue to innovate and making sure that Canadians have the skills they need to get high-quality jobs.
As I mentioned earlier, it is important to remember that Canada is positioned relatively better than many of its G7 peers. Contrary to what the official opposition may believe, our economic policies, such as Canada's economic action plan, have placed Canada on the right track for jobs and growth.
Let us take a minute to consider this. We all remember the show Dragnet where Sergeant Friday would say, “Just the facts, ma'am”. Let me give members the facts. Canada has more than recovered all of the jobs lost during the recession. Since July 2009 we have created 925,000 net new jobs in this country, the strongest job growth record in the G7. In short, Canada has weathered the economic storm well and others are noticing. Do not take my word for it. Let us hear what others are saying.
Just last week the Chicago Tribune praised Canada's economic policies saying:
|| The key to Canada's success has been avoiding some of the worst mistakes made by its neighbor to the south.
|| Americans failed to regulate their banks. Canada's banks are stable.
|| Americans overinflated their real estate market. Canada's housing market never went pop.
While it is gratifying to highlight Canada's economic strengths, as I said, we cannot afford to be complacent. Today's advantage will not carry into tomorrow simply by luck or good intentions. Do members know what will not maintain this advantage? Increasing taxes on Canadians and job creators, particularly by introducing a $21 billion carbon tax, or the introduction of other risky schemes such as imposing a transaction tax on our world-class banks. When will the NDP get it right? Higher taxes and bigger government do not create jobs. This is especially true in today's global economy.
As we have always said, Canada's economy is not immune to forces beyond our borders. A number of external threats could have severe consequences on the Canadian economy. Yet rest assured, our government is aware of these global challenges and that is why our government has taken action to protect Canadians and the Canadian economy.
That brings me to another issue I would like to highlight today, how our government's record of responsible fiscal management has made Canada's economy more resilient and our finances more sustainable. In an era when we see governments crippled by decades of living beyond their means, or when we have governments without any viable realistic plans to ensure long-term fiscal sustainability, our government has followed a different path. Indeed, between the time we formed government in 2006 and the global economic recession, we aggressively paid off $38 billion in federal debt. In fact, we have the lowest federal debt to GDP ratio in almost 30 years.
This gave Canada more flexibility to react to the global economic recession. We were able to take the necessary action to stimulate the Canadian economy and to protect Canadian jobs. Even after taking this action, we were able to maintain the lowest debt to GDP ratio in the G7. Now that is good fiscal management.
Unlike many European countries as well as our neighbours to the south, our government has a plan to return to balanced budgets and ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability.
However it does not end there. We have also taken other concrete actions to make government spending more efficient and sustainable. For example, we took steps to ensure that public sector pension plans are brought in line with those of the private sector. We also took action to ensure that Canada's social programs remain sustainable over the long term, so that they are still there for the next generation. We have also eliminated tax loopholes, to ensure that everyone pays a fair share.
Rest assured that our government's commitment to ensuring the most efficient use of taxpayers' dollars is constant and it will always be core to our agenda. Indeed, government program spending is projected to steadily decline over the next few years and fall well below pre-recession levels.
Direct program spending will decline from $120 billion to $118 billion next year. It will remain below $120 billion for the next four years. Overall, program spending will continue to fall as a percentage of GDP from 13.8% this year to 12.5% in 2017-18. While our government is committed to balancing the budget, unlike the previous Liberal government, we have not and will not reduce transfers to Canadians such as seniors and children or transfers to other levels of government for services that Canadian families rely on, such as health care and social services.
Canadians trying to balance their household budget know the importance of living within their means and the dangers of not doing so. They expect the government to know the same. That is precisely what our government is doing and the Parliamentary Budget Officer agrees. In his recent report, the PBO said, “PBO and Finance Canada both assess the federal fiscal structure to be sustainable over the long term”. In addition to that, the PBO said: “The take-away from this is, federally, we are in a good spot right now”.
Canadians understand the consequences of unsustainable finances. International observers understand it. The PBO understands it. Why does the NDP not understand it? Why does the NDP want higher taxes for Canadians and job creators? Why does it want bloated government? Why does it want to waste hard-earned tax dollars of Canadians on interest costs?
If New Democrats really want to badmouth the Canadian economy, then they should be upfront with Canadians and tell them they want a debate on the implementation of a carbon tax or bank transaction tax, or any hare-brained, risky socialist scheme they can come up with. Certainly they have a bunch of them in their bag of tricks.
Despite the NDP's misguided direction, one thing is clear. Since 2006, our government has continually taken the long view in managing our economy, and that will not change. Our priority is jobs, growth and long-term prosperity.
Mrs. Cathy McLeod (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Revenue, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to lend my voice to the debate today on the NDP motion presented by my colleague on the finance committee.
While I may not agree with her and the NDP's economic agenda of higher taxes, carbon taxes and more deficit spending, I also recognize that the majority of Canadians do not either, so I think we can take some degree of comfort in that.
Right from the start I will note, as many of my Conservative colleagues have done already, that we have no intention to move the Parliamentary Budget Officer outside the Library of Parliament. We want to see a Parliamentary Budget Officer who is a non-partisan, credible source of opinion on fiscal matters, and allowing the Library of Parliament to do that is the best course of action.
During my time, I would like to focus on our Conservative government's landmark achievements in enhancing budget and fiscal transparency since forming government in 2006. This issue has certainly received a lot of media attention of late, especially in the context of today's debate. Therefore, I am happy to provide some insight to parliamentarians and all Canadians.
I am really proud to say that our Conservative government has already established a solid record of keeping Canadians very well informed about government expenditures. This includes creating the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
Preparing the federal budget essentially means drawing a blueprint for how the government intends to set the annual economic agenda for Canada and how we will allocate taxpayers' money. It sets out our country's economic priorities and the means by which these goals will be achieved.
Because the budget is ultimately funded by Canadian taxpayers, we not only believe Canadians have every right to know exactly how and where their tax dollars are being spent; we also believe that all Canadians should participate in the process. I would like to highlight a few specifics of the budget-making process and talk about the consultations phase, a process that really engages Canadians directly.
The way we prepare the budget has changed dramatically since the first budget was presented on December 7, 1867, but the basic principles behind it have changed little.
Traditionally, the budget process was done in the backrooms of Ottawa, with little consultation with everyday Canadians. Today, things are very different. This year, as in previous years, our government undertook a series of extensive public consultations, as did the finance committee.
Additionally, when it comes to economic projections, no longer do we rely on projections made in secret with little transparency of where or how they were determined. That has changed so much. For instance, in 2012, the Minister of Finance consulted with private sector economists in March and October on their forecasts, before presenting the budget and fall update.
Indeed, this has been a long-standing practice, where the government surveys more than a dozen of the most prominent private sector forecasters—Canada's leading independent and impartial economists from Canada's leading banks and academic institutions—to obtain their projections of economic growth and other key variables such as interest rates, the unemployment rate and the inflation rate.
I should also note that all these details and all the details on the government's spending are, for the first time ever, often available free of charge and displayed openly and transparently on websites of the Department of Finance and the Treasury Board Secretariat.
I would encourage all hon. members to explore those websites, because the information on those websites is absolutely phenomenal. On the finance website, the publications and reports contain detailed information that is very illuminating. I encourage everyone to explore those websites because they are quite phenomenal in terms of the information that is there, which can really guide us as we move forward in our decision-making.
The economic forecast that is used as the basis for fiscal planning in the annual budget and update of economic and fiscal projections is the average of that survey of private-sector forecasters. This gives the government an impartial, outside view of the economy and introduces an element of independence into the government's fiscal forecasting process. This is supported and applauded by such organizations as the International Monetary Fund.
This is an approach that has made a significant contribution to the strength and resiliency of the Canadian economy, a record that most others envy.
I would like to remind the NDP, which is so fond of talking Canada's economy down, that we have created over 900,000 net new jobs since July 2009, 90% of them are full time and 75% of them are in the private sector. This is the best job growth record in the entire G7, which is something that even the NDP cannot deny. In fact, what people will not hear from the NDP is that many around the world are looking to Canada's economic leadership as a model to follow.
I would like to share a quote from Tom Donohue, the president of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. Recently he said this about our economic achievements, “The great Canadian miracle is something we should follow”.
Returning to the budget process, I want to underline the importance of public consultations with everyday Canadians in creating this document, which is something I am sure all finance committee members can relate to. Indeed, at finance committee, we met with hundreds of groups and individuals from across Canada. We heard from over 600 individuals, business groups and organizations.
Additionally, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance, along with other ministers and MPs fan out across the country to directly consult with citizens on their budget priorities and how best to meet them. In my riding I am, and I am sure MPs from across the country are, taking that time to sit down with business owners and individuals. It is absolutely amazing to hear the very important suggestions and excellent insight that we get from Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and that actually forms the foundation of our budget.
Every year, I am so delighted to see some of those observations made by Canadians. When we look at it in the budget process, we have seen it come from a simple idea, or not so simple idea at times, into the format that will move Canada forward.
We really support and encourage consultation from coast to coast, This year, for the first time, we tried online prebudget consultations as another format. In fact, since 2006, our Conservative government was the first government in history to open doors to online prebudget consultations to all, again, ensuring that people who wanted their voices heard would have the opportunity.
In fact, even though it is getting a bit late, there is still an opportunity to have some input. Just go to the Department of Finance website, www.fin.gc.ca. The current online consultation that started on November 30 asks Canadians for their ideas on cost neutral or low cost measures to further solidify our economic recovery.
The budget planning process in recent years has opened up even further to encourage all governments to work together and consult with interested groups. That is transparency. That is engagement.
These consultations are critical to ensuring that, at the end of the day, the budget reflects the priorities of Canadians and that government maintains the focus on job creation, economic growth and long-term prosperity.
As our government has done since 2006, this budget will reflect our country's key priorities for creating a strong economy that will benefit all Canadians. Specifically, economic action plan 2013 will continue to build on the strengths and the key pro-growth initiatives our government has been working on in the past year.
We will remain focused on what matters to most Canadians, jobs and economic growth, and ensure that Canada's economic advantage today will translate into the long-term prosperity of tomorrow.
Canadians should expect nothing less from Canada's budget and their government.
Mr. Mathieu Ravignat (Pontiac, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to inform you that I will be sharing my time.
The Federal Accountability Act specifically states that the Parliamentary Budget Officer, or the PBO, shall provide the Senate and the House of Commons with independent analysis on the state of the nation's finances, the government's estimates and trends in the Canadian economy.
The Act also provides that the Parliamentary Budget Officer shall undertake research into the nation's finances and economy and the government's estimates, that is expenditures in general, and that he must provide estimates of the financial cost of any proposal that relates to a matter over which Parliament has jurisdiction.
In his first term, the Parliamentary Budget Officer and his team produced at least 150 key reports, some on a regular basis and some at the request of parliamentarians. I requested reports when I sat on a committee.
A good number of these reports shed light on important financial details that were not found in government publications, which are often too partisan. I must say that, on other occasions, these reports confirmed the key findings of certain government publications.
I found a few key reports that were particularly useful. One of these reports deals with the estimated financial impact of the F-35 procurement program. Imagine what we would not have known had the Parliamentary Budget Officer not spoken out about this program.
A report on the financial impact of the mission in Afghanistan was key in informing Canadians of the cost of a military intervention in a foreign country.
A report on old age security clearly affects members of the aging population who need services in my riding and in all of our ridings.
What is more, a report on the financial impact of the Safe Streets and Communities Act addresses the issue of the safety of Canadians, our children and our families.
Finally, the Parliamentary Budget Officer also released a report on the funding needs of schools on first nations reserves. Hon. members may already be aware that there are two first nations communities in my riding, the Barriere Lake reserve, which is also known as Rapid Lake, and the Kitigan Zibi reserve. This report is therefore essential to the lives of people in these communities, their schools and their education.
The truth is that the Parliamentary Budget Officer did his job very well but he never received any recognition from the government, which never hesitated to attack him.
For example, let us consider this quote:
|| The Conservatives said on Thursday they are not budging from their earlier estimates. They have not made full forecasts, but Mr. Page's office said figures released by the government have suggested the total cost of the planes would be $17.6 billion.
|| Department of National Defence procurement experts stand by their cost projections...
That quote was from the Globe and Mail on March 11, 2011, and we know how that went.
There is also another quote, which states:
|| We also have significant concerns about the completeness of cost information provided to parliamentarians. In March 2011, National Defence responded publicly to the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s report. This response did not include estimated operating, personnel, or ongoing training costs.
Let us consider what the President of the Treasury Board said:
|| I would give some advice to the budget officer. He should spend his time worrying more about his mandate, which is about how we spend money not the money that we do not spend.
In this case, the Minister of Finance talked about the Parliamentary Budget Officer and his figures and said, “unbelievable, unreliable and incredible”.
However, we know that the Parliamentary Budget Officer's report was sounder with regard to certain figures and facts. I continue, again:
|| I don't agree entirely with some of the assumptions.
On his part, the Prime Minister said:
|| The government of Canada today is in surplus. The government of Canada today is not planning a deficit....
Consider the following from page 202 of budget 2009:
||...the Government is projecting a small surplus in 2008–09, followed by deficits of $15.7 billion in 2009–10, $14.3 billion in 2010–11, $8.3 billion in 2011–12, $2.3 billion in 2012–13 and a surplus of $5.5 billion in 2013–14.
The actual numbers, which were confirmed by the Parliamentary Budget Officer, were $5.8 billion in 2008-09, $55.6 billion in 2009-10, $33.4 billion in 2010-11, and $26.2 billion in 2011-12.
Yet on that side of the aisle, there seems to be some form of collective denial with regard to the accuracy of the facts and figures of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
The importance that the government gives to the role of Parliamentary Budget Officer can also be seen when we compare his office to others across the world. For example, the PBO has only 12 full-time staff and 2 interns, while the Congressional Budget Office has over 200 staff. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has a budget of only $2.8 million, while the Congressional Budget Office in the United States has a budget of $46.8 million.
In its short existence, the PBO has been able to publish, as indicated before, over 150 analytical reports. It is clear that the Parliamentary Budget Officer is doing a lot with very little. I would also like to point out the fact that the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, the Netherlands, Sweden and many other nations have, or planned, well-funded and well-staffed budget research offices to serve their national legislatures. That is unlike the Government of Canada, which claims it is undying in its support of accountability.
We in the NDP want to make clear and practical changes that will increase transparency in this country. That is why, for example, the NDP wants to strengthen the already outstanding work done by the Parliamentary Budget Officer in all respects. We want to ensure that there are no interruptions in the day-to-day operations of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. With that in mind, we want Kevin Page's mandate to be extended until his replacement can be found.
The Conservative attacks on the Parliamentary Budget Officer and his team clearly showed the need to ensure that the office is independent. The NDP wants to make the Parliamentary Budget Officer a full, independent officer of Parliament. The NDP also wants the selection process for the new Parliamentary Budget Officer to be open and transparent, because many Canadians fear that the government will not fill the position or will appoint someone who is incapable of doing the job or does not want to do it.
We want to expand the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. We are of the opinion that the Parliamentary Budget Officer's mandate must be broadened to ensure that the office can report on all aspects of the economy and public finances without being subject to political attacks. These are practical solutions that will make our country and our public accounts more transparent.
Ms. Linda Duncan (Edmonton—Strathcona, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for Pontiac for sharing his time with me. It was my great privilege to welcome him to our committee. He will do a fantastic job in deliberations on such matters as strengthening the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
I was honoured today to second this important motion tabled by my colleague, the member of Parliament for Parkdale—High Park, to reaffirm, strengthen and extend the critical mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, or the PBO.
One of our primary obligations as parliamentarians is to scrutinize the government's spending plans as outlined in budgets, estimates and the reports on plans and priorities. This duty applies to all members of Parliament regardless of political affiliation, opposition and backbenchers alike.
Two successive studies by parliamentary committees have identified a significant failure by MPs in delivering this duty. A unanimous report that I had the privilege of contributing to, tabled last fall and entitled “Strengthening Parliamentary Scrutiny of Estimates and Supply”, calls on the government to take action to improve the capacity of MPs to enable more meaningful scrutiny of estimates and supply. This report recognized the important role played by the Parliamentary Budget Officer in this process. The report noted an OECD finding that best practices for budget transparency require that “Parliament should have the opportunity and resources to effectively examine any fiscal report that it deems necessary”.
The committee heard testimony from an array of Canadian and international experts, who concurred that the PBO is a key player in improving and supplementing the capacity of MPs.
Dr. Joachim Wehner, associate professor of public policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, testified that in order to improve scrutiny of the estimates and supply, “The first [requirement]...is to protect and enhance the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.... Internationally, the Parliamentary Budget Officer of Canada is very highly regarded, and it's certainly a major change...in the degree the parliament in Canada has access to an independent, highly professional research capacity”. He added that the role of the PBO could be further strengthened if made a full officer of Parliament with total access to all relevant information. Dr. Wehner shared that his views were premised on international experience with such officers in other jurisdictions.
What is the PBO and where does his mandate arise? The PBO was created in 2006 with the enactment of the Financial Accountability Act. His mandate is clearly prescribed in law to “provide independent analysis to the Senate and to the House of Commons about the state of the nation’s finances, the estimates of the government and trends in the national economy”. He is also mandated to undertake research and assist committees in the review and analysis of estimates. Clearly, the PBO must have ready and open access to financial and economic data to deliver on these duties. MPs and committees have found this information and advice indispensable to their scrutiny of government spending and estimates. Accessibility to all information has regrettably been a matter of ongoing contention for the current PBO. He was ultimately forced to seek a court ruling due to access denials.
While the official opposition was pleased that the government operations and estimates committee report recognized the valuable role of the PBO, in a supplementary report the New Democrats also called on the government to take immediate action to make the Parliamentary Budget Officer an officer of Parliament. Valuing his role, we also recommended that the PBO be legally mandated to report not just to the finance committee, but also to the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates with respect to its estimates work.
This call is reflected in proposed legislation tabled by my colleague the MP for Parkdale—High Park. Our call is endorsed by Canadian expert Dr. David Good, professor at the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria, who testified: “First, I would make the Parliamentary Budget Officer a full agent of Parliament to assist parliamentarians and committees. I think the role and mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer needs to be clarified and strengthened by making the office legislatively separate and independent of the Library of Parliament, thereby operating as a full agent of Parliament”.
The important work of the PBO is highly regarded in Canada and abroad. In fact, next week the Parliamentary Budget Officer will welcome the OECD network of parliamentary budget officers to Ottawa for their fifth annual meeting.
PBOs exist in Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Australia and even Korea. As I said, the OECD network of PBOs is scheduled to meet in Ottawa to continue deliberations on improved parliamentary oversight of fiscal stimulus, deficits and risk management. It is most regrettable that they are arriving in this country at the very moment in time when there is a dispute over providing important information to the PBO and when we are facing a vacuum in accessibility to his important expertise.
Other countries provide analogous examples of providing support to elected officials. For example, the Congressional Budget Office in the United States of America, created in 1975, provides budget committees and Congress with objective information about budgetary and economic issues.
As mentioned, strong support for an independent Parliamentary Budget Officer has been voiced by experts who lauded Canada for the initial establishment of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Dr. Wehner spoke of the need, and I quote:
||...to protect and enhance the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. A number of countries are creating similar institutions, and the Parliament in Canada has really been at the cusp of this development. Internationally, the Parliamentary Budget Officer of Canada is very highly regarded, and it's certainly a major change, in my view, at least, in the degree the parliament in Canada has access to an independent, highly professional research capacity.
He then added:
|| I believe that some adjustments are possible to the legal framework for the Parliamentary Budget Officer. In particular, this role could be strengthened, or the status be strengthened, if he were a full officer of Parliament. Moreover, steps could be taken so that the Parliamentary Budget Officer has total access to all relevant information. In the past I believe there have been incidents where departments have not been quite as forthcoming with providing information to the Parliamentary Budget Officer as perhaps they should have been. But overall, I see this as a very positive development, and I see some scope for strengthening it also on the basis of international experience.
There we have it. Even international experts are watching what is happening in Canada and what will happen with our PBO.
New Democrats have long supported the establishment of an independent PBO. New Democrats stood in the House and voiced their support for the creation of a Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2006. We remain in support of the PBO, regrettably now under attack by members opposite.
It would serve members opposite well to be reminded of their own previous support of an independent PBO and the value of objective analysis. The Prime Minister in 2006 said:
|| Such a body would ensure that the government is genuinely accountable for taxpayers' dollars and that we maintain fiscal discipline
The finance minister in 2006 said:
|| Governments cannot be held to account if Parliament and Canadians do not know the real state of public finances.
In fact, the Conservative 2006 electoral platform endorsed the creation of an independent Parliamentary Budget Officer. How attitudes have changed. Time after time the PBO has faced delays or denials to his requests for financial information. As I mentioned, he was forced to take the matter to the Federal Court.
Now in the face of his imminent termination, the government has dragged its feet in ensuring his timely replacement. The process for filling the PBO office took 18 months last time. MPs now will face review of the coming budget and estimates absent the PBO's analytical support. The simple answer is presented in this motion: extend the term of the current PBO.
What happened to the government members who once proposed support for the PBO?
I can personally attest to the value of his reporting and the assistance of his office in my participation in a parliamentary committee and my review of estimates.
We are meant to be stewards of the public purse. We can choose to support institutions that ensure informed decisions. An independent PBO reporting to Parliament offers that window. I call on all members to support this motion to make the PBO a true officer of Parliament.
Mr. Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure that I rise today to speak to what is a very important motion. The Liberal Party has indicated that it will be supporting the motion, and for good reason. It is no surprise that the party will be supporting the motion in the sense that we have been talking about it a great deal.
The leader of the Liberal Party has had the opportunity to ask a number of questions related to this issue, given the direct appeal to the Prime Minister to recognize how important it is that we give an extension to Mr. Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer. He is our first Parliamentary Budget Officer. One reason the position receives worldwide recognition is because of the efforts of Mr. Page. We want to make sure that whoever replaces Mr. Page, as long as he or she is bilingual, we will be able to continue a very strong tradition of having a Parliamentary Budget Officer who contributes immensely to the way the House of Commons works in terms of accountability and transparency.
The member opposite said that at least we have not fired him. He has not lost his job, which means he is independent. Because Mr. Page still holds the job does not necessarily mean that the office is independent and meets the objectives suggested in the motion today. Moving toward true independence of the office is a step in the right direction. That is something we should be embracing. We should look at ways we can further enhance the parliamentary budget office.
In listening to the debate throughout the day, there were a number of things I could not help but notice. Many of the Conservative speakers would take today to reflect not necessarily on the parliamentary budget office but on the performance of the Conservatives. One after another they talked about how great things are here. Of course, they would talk about how bad it was in the 13 years prior to their arrival. They are somewhat selective in terms of what they bring to the table in making those presentations.
Some things are absent. For example, when the Conservatives took over the books, they had a huge surplus. That is a significant fact they never make reference to. They never make reference to the fact that they had a huge trade surplus. There are many things the previous government put in place that have had a very positive impact during the Conservatives' term in government. One reason the government has been able to succeed in certain areas, such as in our banking industry, is because of the previous government's regulations in the 1990s.
I would like to think that the focus of this debate is not necessarily on those types of issues. It should be on the parliamentary budget office and the role independent offices play. Earlier I articulated how things change through time. A number of years ago, we brought in the Parliamentary Budget Officer. That is a relatively new concept. It is proving to be very successful, and that is good, but it is nothing new in the sense that we have independent officers of the House. Provincial jurisdictions have independent officers, and they do a wonderful job on the tasks that have been assigned to them.
The auditor, for example, has been well established in Canada for many years. In fact, every province and I believe every territory has adopted an auditor. Federally we have the Auditor General and we have provincial auditors as well. They provide tangible results. Their budgets are allocated so that they are able to do the work that is necessary to cut through some of the political partisan ideas or statistics that come out.
A good example of that is the gun registry. If we listened to the Conservative line, we would have thought that the gun registry cost $10 million to $40 million a year to administer. We know that there were some significant upfront costs, but the actual annual cost coming from the Auditor General was somewhere around $3 million. This is important information to have because it assists in holding the government accountable.
As I said, the Auditor General has that opportunity from a different perspective. Once money has been spent or there are ideas or policies that have been put in place, auditor generals across the country are often called in to investigate and report back to their respective legislatures or to the House of Commons. Their reports are well read and there is this huge expectation that government will follow up on the recommendations that our auditors provide.
I have gone through years of listening to auditor reports being presented. In my case, it was primarily in the Manitoba legislature, but on a couple of occasions it was here in Ottawa in the House of Commons. When we go through the reports, we find that ministries respond to them. There is a sense of accountability to those reports. Opposition members are very reliant on the Auditor General making reports. The reports have helped shape public policy and have allowed us to reflect on some of the decisions that were made.
The establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Officer here in Canada five or six years ago is something that, in time, we are going to see more of. There is a relatively small number of countries that have parliamentary budget officers or the equivalent thereof. I suspect that as we continue in time, we will see different forms of this type of office established because there is great value in having that independent assessment done.
We need to recognize that Mr. Page, or the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, has a certain amount of expertise and resources that average members of the House of Commons do not have. When the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer uses those resources and that expertise, it is in a better position than we are to provide an analysis on the wide variety of issues that come before the House of Commons.
It is important that we make note of the degree to which government spends tax dollars. We are talking about billions and billions of dollars. In the next number of weeks we will receive a federal budget that will have an impact on every Canadian and permanent resident who calls Canada their home. That budget is being financed by tax dollars. Canadians want to know that there is value for the money that is being spent. They have a right to see whether that money is being spent appropriately and intelligently.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer plays a critical role in that. Today, more than ever before, there is a higher demand for transparency and accountability. I like to think that the Internet played a critical role in that. Information is so easily accessed today compared to 10 years ago. I have been an elected official for well over 20 years and I know the difference in research capabilities and how the Internet has opened up opportunities for Canadians from coast to coast to coast to get engaged in how those tax dollars are being spent.
Therefore, there is a higher level of expectation. A higher level of accountability is required and more transparency is the order of the day. That is why I believe that going forward the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and the work that he or she is going to be doing, is going to become that much more critical. What the House should be doing is supporting that evolution and allowing the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to expand, with the idea that in fact there is great value there. We actually save money if we invest in this particular office and I would like to give a couple of examples of that.
Before I do, I want to highlight an issue where the Parliamentary Budget Officer played a very important role in appeasing the concerns and anxieties of a great number of Canadians from all over the country. I raised it earlier in the form of a question regarding the pension issue.
The Prime Minister was in Europe giving a speech. He made the decision that our pensions are in a bit of a crisis situation in Canada, and as such we would have to increase the age of retirement from age 65 to 67. That was the message that was given from overseas and it was communicated down from the Prime Minister's Office to all the different ministries and all the Conservative backbenchers. All of a sudden they started to create communications and speaking points that said we are in this crisis situation with an aging population. They had to create the impression that if we did not do this we would not be able to sustain pensions going forward.
Seniors from across Canada stood up and made very strong efforts, whether petitions, post cards, emails or letters. They got engaged on that particular issue. I suspect they met with some success because the government did not go as far as it was going to go. Instead, it just left the change from age 65 to 67.
My personal advice to the government would be to actually acknowledge that it has made a mistake here and put it back to age 65. That would be the smart thing to do because if it does not do it I can assure the House that a Trudeau-led government or a Marc Garneau-led government will do that. We will make that change and bring it back to age 65.
It was the Parliamentary Budget Officer who came out and said there is no crisis, that it was a minuscule fraction of a per cent. We would have to get out the old decimal in terms of the impact on the GDP. That is really all it was. Yet if people were to listen to the Conservative government, and after all that is who has the books, they would have thought that it was a serious crisis and that it was going to happen.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer was able to alleviate a lot of anxiety out there, because using the actual numbers he was able to demonstrate that Canadians did not have to be fearful, that the money and future revenues were there to sustain the fund so that we could in fact leave it at age 65, and that the sky was not in fact falling. That is one example.
Government makes serious policy changes. Let us remember the policy change that the government made on the 40-year mortgage. The Conservatives like to take a lot of the credit for former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, as minister of finance, when they came out and said, “We want strong banking regulations.” We had the 25-year mortgage. We saw the value of insuring that industry.
Thank goodness for that. Canada was almost alone in terms of when the banking industries around the world started to crash. Canada did exceptionally well. It had nothing to do with the current government. It was because of the former government. What did the Conservative government do when it took office? It actually came up with the 40-year mortgage. It took the idea from the States.
I give the government credit, after a little period of time it recognized that it was a bad policy and reversed it. Now we are going back to the 25-year mortgage. It is good that it made that change. However, I suspect that if the Parliamentary Budget Officer had the opportunity to do the assessment, and it is quite possible that he had already done the assessment although I am not 100% sure of that, we would find that the numbers would have reinforced the reason why it was good to make the change the government made.
At the end of the day what we really want to see is acknowledgement from the government that, given the billions of tax dollars that the government is going to be proposing to spend in the upcoming weeks, it makes sense to give an extension to Mr. Page's contract. He needs to stick around for at least a few more months. Even if somehow we get that new Parliamentary Budget Officer appointed, there is an argument to be made that there is nothing wrong with having Mr. Page around because of the numbers. He is familiar with the numbers.
I would ultimately argue that the leader of the Liberal Party was correct when he challenged the Prime Minister to ensure that office had someone in place. We are suggesting that it should be Mr. Page, at least for the next couple of months, so that we can ensure we have the right person, whoever he or she might be. It is the responsible thing to do.
In terms of the future of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, I think we should be looking at ways in which we can make it truly more independent and more effective. We think it is an issue of priorities. We believe there is in fact great value to having a healthy, strong, parliamentary budget office. At the end of the day, the numbers that it provides and the information that it gives us are very important.
A good example of that would the F-35. Let us think about the F-35, the benefits of the Parliamentary Budget Officer and how much money Mr. Page would have saved the taxpayer. Again, we are talking about billions of dollars.
I would suggest that the Parliamentary Budget Officer has proved how effective and how valuable that office is to every Canadian taxpayer, to every Canadian citizen and resident of our country, and provides an enormous service to the House of Commons. We should support it by giving that extension and by looking at ways we can make it truly more independent—
Mr. Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I have the pleasure, on behalf of the official opposition, of concluding the debate on this very important motion.
I would like the backbench members of the Conservative government to pay particular attention because this affects them as much as it affects opposition members.
The office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is non-partisan and so does research for all parties, particularly in an extremely complex area in which we, as parliamentarians and members of Parliament, have very few resources.
We are well aware that backbench members on the government side are about as much in the dark as we are when it comes time to examine budgets, because all powers in relation to budgets are in the hands of the Department of Finance, which answers to the Minister of Finance. The Department of Finance does not answer to Parliament, it answers to the Minister of Finance, and so to cabinet.
That is why I would like to have the Conservative backbench members’ attention during my speech. These decisions affect them as much as they affect us. We want to have an office, like the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, that can shed light and force the Department of Finance, the Minister of Finance and cabinet to be a little more accountable and transparent.
I would like to recall what the legislation says:
|| 79.2 The mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to:
||(a) provide independent analysis to the Senate and the House of Commons about the state of the nation’s finances, the estimates of the government and trends in the national economy.
This is a very important element, since we have recently witnessed several attempts by members of the Conservative government cabinet in particular to create confusion regarding the role and mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
His role is not, as some, including the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Finance, have claimed, simply to examine the money spent by the federal government and by cabinet. His role is to examine the state of the national economy and provide independent analyses about matters relating to the economy and the budget that he considers to be of significant interest both to parliamentarians and to the Canadian public.
Another part of its mandate is, at the request of the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance, standing committees of the House of Commons, or the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Accounts, to provide analyses and reports on matters that come to their attention. At the request of any parliamentary committee, it must conduct studies that review government estimates. Lastly, at the request of any parliamentary committee or any member of the House, it must assess the financial cost of any proposed measure within the government's areas of jurisdiction.
Once again, an important role played by the Parliamentary Budget Officer or the PBO's office is analyzing the financial and budget implications of private members’ bills. Unfortunately, the PBO has been unable to achieve this objective because of the lack of resources allocated from the very outset; but I will return to this point later.
After having listened to many speeches in the House from the opposition and the government, what strikes me is the offhanded attitude of government MPs towards this issue.
It needs to be taken seriously. Canada is a G8 economy, but at the moment, I get the impression that we are operating like a banana republic. The hope has been that the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer can counterbalance analyses by the Department of Finance, but at the end of the day, it cannot because it has neither the resources, nor the independence or autonomy required to do so.
I would like to compare the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to a successful example of how a budgetary and financial analysis tool ought to function; I am referring to the United States Congressional Budget Office. For the benefit of the House, I would like to review the details of how it came about.
The CBO was established in 1974, mainly to counter the growing powers being appropriated by Richard Nixon, the president at the time, who was able to seize powers by hiding information from members of Congress. A mechanism was needed to enable members of Congress, whether in the Senate or the House of Representatives, to obtain the information they needed before it could be concealed by the Office of the President.
The Congressional Budget Office was established at the time for a very specific purpose, one that very closely parallels what we are experiencing at the moment: the need to check the growing powers being assumed by the Office of the Prime Minister and cabinet at the expense of parliamentarians responsible for guaranteeing transparency and accountability.
I would like to compare the establishment of the CBO and of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer because there are many similarities between the two processes, and between the objectives that those establishing them had in mind.
I would like to quote from Robert Reischauer, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, who was there when it was established—not as the director, but he was there. He described how Congress attempted to weaken the powers of the CBO when it was being established:
|What the House wanted [when the CBO was created] was basically a manhole in which Congress would have a bill or something and it would lift up the manhole cover and put the bill down it, and 20 minutes later a piece of paper would be handed up, with the cost estimate, the answer, on it. No visibility, [just] some kind of mechanism down below the ground level doing this...non controversial [work], the way the sewer system [does].
So that really gives you an idea of the state of mind of the U.S. Congress, which did not want the Republican party, the party in power at the time, to declaw the office, which was responsible for providing independent, non-partisan financial analysis to which members of Congress did not have access.
However, Mr. Reischauer, like many of his colleagues, opposed the will of the CBO, somewhat as Kevin Page did, to defend the independence, autonomy and non-partisan nature of his office. A few days ago, however, the Minister of Finance said this on Global TV:
||—the idea...was that the parliamentary budget officer would kind of work like the congressional budget officer in the United States to report to the elected people in the House of Commons about how the government was doing in its budgeting. Sort of being a sounding board, a testing board.
This clearly shows that the Minister of Finance has no knowledge about the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, nor has he given it careful thought. Either that or he really wants to try, five years after it was created, to make it as harmless as the members of the U.S. Congress wanted to make their office when it was established. However, the Conservatives, the Minister of Finance and the members of the former Reform Party have not always thought that way.
What was the original idea in creating the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, according to the Reform Party at the time and the Federal Accountability Act, which we supported in 2006? That idea was clearly stated.
I would like to thank Paul Wells, who managed to find this quotation from Monte Solberg, a prominent former Reform Party MP. In 2004, he expressed the party's desire for such an office as follows:
|| It would be an independent body that would answer to Parliament and would not be part of the government. It would not be a situation where the government could manipulate the figures to its own ends.
That is not what the government did. By placing the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer under the authority of the Library of Parliament from 2006 to 2008—which meant that the Parliamentary Budget Officer served at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, who could dismiss him if he wished—the Conservative government wilfully restricted the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s independence and autonomy.
The Conservatives thought that, by appointing Kevin Page to the position in 2008, with the constraints that were placed on him, they could guarantee themselves a good little lap dog, a poodle. However, instead of that—and to Mr. Page's credit—they got themselves a pit bull who chose to champion government accountability and transparency.
The office exists today. It is our parliamentary duty, on both the opposition and government sides, to provide it with all the tools, autonomy and independence it needs, along with more resources so that it can do its work properly for the benefit and efficiency of our work as parliamentarians.
There are currently nine to twelve employees who work in the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and some positions have yet to be filled. The office has a budget of less than $3 million. By comparison, the American CBO has about 250 employees and has a budget of nearly $50 million. The CPB in the Netherlands, which has a similar role, has 170 employees. The National Assembly Budget Office in South Korea has 135 employees. The office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer has nine to twelve employees to do the work.
Organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the OECD, have spoken about and continue to speak about the need for an independent analysis office that answers to Parliament. In a recent OECD document published in 2007 and subsequently updated, the OECD identifies three principles for independent budgetary institutions, such as the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. It is worth going over these details, because they are at the heart of the difference in interpretation of the role of the PBO that the NDP and the government members have been expressing today.
The first principle for this office is the guarantee of independence and long-term sustainability. The OECD stresses the importance of the office being non-partisan, something that is constantly being challenged by the Conservatives. In their minds, being non-partisan means agreeing with them. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has a very high level of technical expertise. This office performs miracles with what little means it has, but it lacks the resources to do its job properly. The appointment process for an officer is very important. There must be a process, and that is why we are calling for the creation of the position of Parliamentary Budget Officer. The Parliamentary Budget Officer would thereby be an officer of Parliament and not an employee appointed by the Prime Minister who could be fired at the Prime Minister's will. Sure, we could talk about the Library of Parliament committee, but this committee is not non-partisan. The government always has the majority on that committee.
There also needs to be long-term stable funding. I remind government members who oppose enhancing the means and the independence of the office that when the report on the costs generated by our involvement in Afghanistan was released by the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the government immediately threatened to reduce his budget from $2.8 million, down to $1.8 million. In fact, at the time, he was only able to preserve his budget and resources by making compromises on his degree of independence and autonomy. These conditions had been imposed on him by the Library of Parliament.
The second principle presented by the OECD, which is also a condition for having a functional office, is the ability to lead truly independent analyses. This includes having access to the information needed to conduct the studies. Let us not forget, and government members are well aware of that, that the Parliamentary Budget Officer must now turn to the courts to obtain the information that he needs to conduct the studies that could shed light on government spending, including the positions that are targeted and eliminated through government cutbacks.
As parliamentarians, we do not get that information from the government. It refuses to give us that information, and it refuses to give it to the Parliamentary Budget Officer who, if he were an officer of Parliament, would have the necessary authority to obtain it, without having to go to court.
Another aspect related to the ability to conduct truly independent analyses is the maintaining of cordial relations without compromising the independence of his office. We all know that, following all the analyses and reports released by the Parliamentary Budget Officer, several Conservative members have been openly hostile and certain cabinet members have shown a great deal of contempt toward him, which is totally unacceptable.
The third element, which is also a sensitive issue among our Conservative friends, is the fact that this issue has an impact on the public. To a large degree, it means there is a need to have an independent and open relationship with the media, in order to be able to get the information out.
If you recall, when the position was first created, the Parliamentary Librarian tried to muzzle Mr. Page by preventing him from giving the media the information that he had prepared for the benefit of the Canadian people and for use by parliamentarians.
A number of the reports prepared by the Parliamentary Budget Officer or his office spurred healthy debate in the House of Commons. These include the sustainability of pensions, the cost of fighting crime with more jail sentences, freezing or cutting expenditures, security costs at the G8 and G20 summits, forecasts on the eve of the 2008 financial and economic crisis and, finally, the cost of the F-35 fighter jets.
We should remember that many of these reports contradicted what the government said about many issues, including the F-35s. This has been mentioned a number of times today.
It just amazes me to hear them say that we do not need to give the Parliamentary Budget Officer more power because the departments and the ministers provide the information. We have proven over and over again that a number of the debates triggered by the PBO's reports and analyses have brought to light many issues, many weaknesses in the Conservative administration that eventually led to debate in the House. It would not have happened had the departments, ministers and cabinet members been allowed to decide whether to provided the information or not.
I will talk about another curious aspect of the debate on sustainability of pensions. The Parliamentary Budget Officer studied the impact of the aging population, a study that the Minister of Finance had promised with the 2007 budget and that was needed for long-term planning. The study was probably done, but the minister refuses to submit it to Parliament. The Parliamentary Budget Officer carried out his own study—which the minister rejected—but was unable to submit it to Parliament for a debate on this important issue. This report was prepared using public money and it is probably sitting on a shelf at the Department of Finance or in the minister's office.
It is important to note that Canada is lagging behind other OECD countries. As I said, Canada is a G8 country. We should act like a G8 country by ensuring a maximum level of democracy, transparency and accountability when it comes to assessing our public finances.
Earlier I mentioned the conditions imposed by the OECD to ensure a functional PBO office or other similar functions. I can substantiate that with comments made by Dr. Alice Rivlin who was the first CBO in the United States. She faced a similar struggle against the government powers of the day, who were also trying to limit the CBO's authority. In the 1970s, she established the three main principles underlying the work of a good watchdog, from an economic and budgetary perspective.
Here are the three elements. The first is independence, pure and simple. At present, no matter what our Conservative friends may say, our Parliamentary Budget Officer is not independent. He works for the Library of Parliament and reports to a committee—the Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament—on which the Conservatives have a majority.
Secondly, the non-partisan nature of the position is important. The PBO can examine bills put forward by the NDP, the Liberals and the Conservatives, for he is non-partisan.
The third principle is empirical objectivity, which ensures the benefit of technical and financial resources to conduct proper economic studies based on empirical evidence and theories.
At present, the PBO cannot do this. That is why we are asking that this individual be made an officer of Parliament. This position will not be filled in time for his departure, so we are asking that Mr. Page be reappointed to the position. We are not the only ones asking for this.
In all the media, whether left, right or centre, I have heard pundits talking about the importance of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. There is a general consensus on this within Canadian society and among those who care about these things. The Conservatives do not share this consensus, but they are the only ones who do not want to give the Parliamentary Budget Officer greater powers, more independence and more resources.
In passing, I would like to quote Ian Lee, whom the government often calls on for committee studies. He said that it is very important that the PBO be transformed into an officer of Parliament.
To conclude, I would like to say that the issue is important to backbenchers. Should the NDP replace them in 2015, I can guarantee that if the Parliamentary Budget Officer is not an officer of Parliament, it will be the first request they make as the opposition.