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Book Excerpt: Unaccountable

09/29/2015 08:01 EDT | Updated 09/29/2016 05:12 EDT
Penguin Random House Canada

My relationship with several key people in the Harper government was -- "interesting." But when I took the job as Canada's first parliamentary budget officer, I never envisioned the PBO as being involved in an "us versus them" dynamic. We were in our office to serve parliamentarians who had reasonable requests for costing or other fiscal information.

But the relationship that had developed between our office and the ruling Conservative party was, to put it mildly, somewhat strained. And as was their pattern, members of the governing party often made things personal, but from my perspective, those personal attacks only served to bolster the confidence of the team at the PBO. Why? Because the government rarely had anything negative to say about the work we produced. They might take cheap shots at me, but as time passed they learned to keep quiet about the content of the reports themselves--because the content was always solid and based on reliable data. We knew that key people in the government had a grudging respect for what we were producing and that kept the fires stoked at the PBO. But in the end, it wasn't our work that primarily upset the leaders of the government; rather, it was apparently the public face of the PBO that made their blood boil.

For the most part, the personal attacks were launched against me. Prime Minister Harper, finance minister Flaherty, and other cabinet ministers did not single out other individuals from our office. They wanted to divert attention whenever government projections didn't match those of the PBO and they had a focused target. But realistically, in those five years that I was in the PBO, the government and senior public service personnel never came back to Parliament or us with a substantive response on any of our reports. They didn't do it on Afghanistan, or on the F35, the crime bill costing, or fiscal sustainability. Prime Minister Harper and his people simply wanted to create their own information boxes. They continually attempted to give the impression to Canadians through their communiques and the media that they were expressing the views of a broad base across the country. Of course, much of that was nonsense--rhetoric and spin. But I have to admit that they really could sell. From my desk, I witnessed a consistent pattern wherein the government rarely seemed to provide significant or believable information as a comeback to our reports. Rather, they always shot back with the same tired accusations that the work emanating from our office was somehow partisan in nature or an academic exercise.

Again, this was all a part of the deflection from reality, another attempt at making personal commentary the norm. Inevitably, the government's particular approach, playing its cards tight to its vest, actually assisted the PBO in doing its job.

Members of the media and MPs as well came to view us as one of the few vehicles through which they could find any relevant, meaningful information. Ours was a fundamentally different approach when it came to the dissemination of information. Media people were blown away by the fact that we were actually prepared to share data. Our model of operation was foreign to them, especially given the consistent stonewalling that they had been experiencing from the government. For instance, we offered them the chance to speak directly with our analysts on a given report before ever speaking with me. In that way they would have more information with which to ask me the right questions -- the hard questions.

The media soon came to realize that we had no fear, were hiding nothing, and were prepared to go on the record. Compared to what they were experiencing with the government and the public service in general, it was a relief for them. As a result, the prime minister's closed shop environment began to work against him. He may not have enjoyed the profile we received, but the truth is that he helped create that profile. And he might not have appreciated our methods, but we served an increasingly useful purpose given the consistent lack of information provided by his government.

This is an excerpt of Kevin Page's book, Unaccountable: Truth and Lies on Parliament Hill, available on Sept. 29, 2015.

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