POLITICS

Liberal Bill To Modify Role Of Budget Watchdog Causes Concern

04/11/2017 07:57 EDT

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government tabled legislation Tuesday which, once passed, will give the parliamentary budget officer expanded powers but also impose new restrictions.

The so-called budget implementation act would make the federal watchdog an independent Officer of Parliament, set the officer's term at seven years, ensure the office has expanded access to data and enable it to estimate the costs of any election platform proposal at the request of political parties.

The legislation, however, also proposes to mandate the PBO to submit its annual work plans to the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons for approval.

If passed into law, the moves would alter the rules surrounding the budget office, which is designed to serve parliamentarians as an non-partisan check on the management of government finances.

jeandenis frechette

Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette appears at Commons finance committee on Parliament Hill in 2015. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The proposed changes would also prevent the PBO from making a report public until a day after it provides it to the parliamentary committee that requested the research or to the Speakers.

Assistant parliamentary budget officer Mostafa Askari said Tuesday, shortly after receiving the bill, that he would study it carefully to determine its implications.

"There are new restrictions on the operation of the new PBO and we have to figure out what those restrictions imply in terms of the effectiveness and the credibility of the PBO," Askari said.

Former PBO Kevin Page said the Liberals fulfilled a 2015 election pledge by making the PBO an Officer of Parliament. He said he was also encouraged by the proposal to allow the office to cost election promises.

"I worry that these kinds of constraints could actually really limit the quote unquote independence of the office in practice."

But Page has concerns about the potential limits on the types of work the office will be permitted to do going forward and how the results are released.

"That could be a really big price," Page said in an interview. "I worry that these kinds of constraints could actually really limit the quote unquote independence of the office in practice."

Page noted that the changes are part of draft legislation, which he said could be amended.

A statement released Tuesday by the office of Government House leader Bardish Chagger said that by establishing the PBO as a new office, and by making it an Officer of Parliament, it would become more independent from whichever government is in power.

'Significant independence'

"The PBO would offer Parliament an expert and objective source of research and analysis on the state of the nation's finances, the government's estimates and trends in the Canadian economy," the statement said.

A spokesman for Chagger noted the changes propose that the budget officer could only be removed from office through a vote by both chambers.

"That, in and of itself, provides significant independence," said Mark Kennedy, who added that the Speakers represent Parliament and not the government of the day.

"This is not someone who is working for a government department... they would be working for Parliament."

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