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Watching the Watchdog: An Ode to Kevin Page

03/29/2013 05:46 EDT | Updated 05/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

The watchdog's job description is right there on the Government of Canada website:

The mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation's finances, the government's estimates and trends in the Canadian economy; and upon request from a committee or parliamentarian, to estimate the financial cost of any proposal for matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction.

Sounds so necessary. And so simple. The Parliamentary Budget Officer's job is to make certain that the people's parliament is spending the people's money reasonably wisely, reasonably prudently.

Who could ever question that?

For starters, the Harper Government -- which founded the office five years ago, so approved every word of that description.

Last week saw the end of the tenure of Canada's first and, so far, only Parliamentary Budget Officer. He's Kevin Page, who's an economist by training, has been a civil servant for the last 27 years, and has so pissed off the governing Harperites by doing his job to the very best of his ability that there were likely high fives and champagne all round in the Conservative caucus at the end of Friday.

Kevin Page is a genuine Canadian hero. While so many other Canadian civil servants (and politicians) went along with the Harperite parliamentary thuggery, Page simply did his job.

He kept a hard and sceptical eye on the public purse and how the Harper government spent it.

For instance, the government announced that each of its pet F-35 fighter planes would cost Canadians $75-million. Page examined the contract, reported back that the actual cost would be $128-million.

The Department of Defence claimed that the war in Afghanistan -- Canada's longest ever -- cost Canadians $8-billion. Page said the actual cost was more than twice as much.

So it went. Time after time, Kevin Page stood his ground, spoke truth to power in the very best civil service tradition.

Steve Paikin, that other speaker of truth to power, interviewed Page for TVO's Agenda just before he vanished into the Ottawa sunset.

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At one stage, Paikin asks in wonder: "What does it say about Canada when a bald, kinda nerdy-looking guy with glasses is seen as a bit of a folk hero among Canadians because you had your eyes on the purse?"

The bald, kinda nerdy-looking guy with glasses sighs: "I'm certainly not a folk hero. I get paid money to do this job. Nobody in our office thinks any one of us are heroes. We just had a job to do."

Kevin Page looks like actor Patrick Stewart (Star Trek) and comes across as a sort of reverse Clark Kent -- crime fighter by day, bland, innocuous nobody the rest of the time. He seldom looks at Paikin, still mostly uses the present tense and the word "we" when talking about the Parliamentary Budget Office and its staff.

He's the ultimate, dedicated, honest bureaucrat -- laid back, cool, cautious, careful, reticent -- who tells it like he sees it.

Here are a few excerpts from the Steve Paikin interview with Kevin Page:

Perhaps his key statement: "I think if the Conservative Party were in opposition right now, they'd be quite supportive of our office. Our job is not to support the executive, our job is to support parliament ... and the role of parliament is to hold the government to account."

On costing the F-35 war planes, crime bills etc.: "We've given something to parliament that they weren't getting from the public service and certainly weren't getting from the government."

On the government's much-criticized omnibus bills: "We had massive omnibus bills. Hundreds and hundreds of pages. Dozens and dozens of acts ... limited time periods to pass (them). It was an effort to really, I think, undermine parliament."

On the adversarial relationship between the government and his PBO: "if the parliamentary budget officer doesn't stand up ... and that's deemed to be adversarial ... I'm not apologizing for that either.

On fixing parliament's problems: "It's in the interest of the country. It's in the interest of parliament. It's not necessarily in the interest of the government of the day.

"Is it hard to correct the system? No. We can look at the process, we can incent MPs to do their jobs better if we give them a role to actually change the (financial) estimates.

"Can we change the structure of the estimates ... and organize better information? Yes.

"Can we level the playing field? Yes. We can have proactive disclosure of financial information from departments. And I think that would fundamentally change the system.

"And it's all very doable. The reason why we don't do it? Because the executive thinks it's in their interest not to do it. The public service thinks its in their interest not to do it."

On his career at the PBO: "I don't want to be looking back five years from now with people saying well, where were you? So it was more important for us to stand up and be there."

There's no doubt that this Canadian watchdog, this good and faithful civil servant, stood up and was there when he was needed.

Stood up and was there for us.

And now he's left the building. Considering his valour in the face of the enemy, he should be wearing the Victoria Cross for service above and beyond the call of duty when he leaves.

But he's a good bureaucrat, so he'll certainly deny that he's done anything extraordinary.

Instead, he'll likely remind us what he told Paikin: "Nobody in our office thinks any one of us are heroes. We just had a job to do."

Good job, Mr. Page.

Well done, sir.

(The interview has been edited and condensed.)