POLITICS
04/03/2012 05:06 EDT | Updated 06/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Report backs-up budget officer but future of his role under a cloud

OTTAWA - Somewhere on holiday far away from Ottawa, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page may be saying: I told you so.

But even as his report on the cost of the F-35 fighter jets was vindicated Tuesday by the auditor general, the future of Page's office is under a cloud, prompting calls for its mandate to be strengthened.

Page and the Conservatives have butted heads repeatedly since he took on the position of parliamentary fiscal watchdog in 2008, two years after the Conservatives created the job as part of an effort to improve government accountability.

His term comes to an end in a year and speculation is already swirling about what will happen to the office when he leaves.

Until then, the office's $2.8 million budget for this year remains in limbo. The office is part of the Library of Parliament and their 2012-2013 financial plan hasn't been set.

Like all other federal government bodies, the library has submitted plans to cut their costs between five and 10 per cent and those proposals are under review.

The budget released last week showed little mercy towards some of the agencies who've publicly battled the Harper government in the past, with groups like the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy axed entirely and others, like the CBC, on the receiving end of major cuts.

Page was on holiday Tuesday and not available for comment, but his office issued a statement noting that the auditor general's findings on the cost of the jets was in line with their own.

Page had calculated that the cost of the F-35 could reach $22.6 billion over 20 years, with a total price tag of $29.3 billion if maintenance costs were extended over another 10 years to cover the expected service life of the aircraft.

At the time, the Conservatives insisted the price would be close to $15 billion, but the auditor general's report said that the department's true cost estimate was closer to $25 billion.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson said they were holding back.

"At the time of its response, National Defence knew the costs were likely to increase but did not so inform parliamentarians," the report said.

And they should have come clean once Page reported his findings, Ferguson said.

"That would have been a prime opportunity for National Defence to bring forward to parliament the full costing of the project and they didn't do that," he told reporters.

"And that really would have been the chance to set the record straight on what the cost of the project is going to be."

The statement from Page's office said they were happy to continue work on the file.

"The PBO remains ready and willing to serve Parliament by providing independent analysis on any new options the government may wish to consider replacing Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s," the statement said.

The disconnect between what Page was reporting and what the Conservatives were insisting, as well as his findings on the cost of the Tories' crime agenda, set the stage for the toppling of Stephen Harper's minority government last year.

This year, a report from Page's office on the sustainability of the old age security system was dismissed by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty as being "unbelievable, unreliable, incredible."

But opposition critics and advocacy groups said Tuesday Page is the reliable one.

"Kevin Page, since he was named, has always been proven right and the more he is proven right the more he is attacked by the Conservatives," said NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.

NDP MP Peggy Nash proposed a private members bill last year that would make the budget office independent of the Library of Parliament and remove the provision that he serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.

She said the fact that the government accepted the auditor general's findings despite having dismissed Page shows there is a problem.

"The auditor general is after-the-fact and the PBO is before or in real time as money is being spent and it would make much more sense for Canadians to have information about spending as it's being spent," she said.

Her call was renewed by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

"If the opposition wants to stop this from happening again, they need to demand a Parliamentary Budget Officer who is hired by Parliament, reports directly to Parliament, and answers to Parliament alone,” said Gregory Thomas, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.