Editor’s Note: In selecting our news story of the year, there were many more obvious choices. The Quebec student protests, which began over a tuition-fee hike, brought thousands of people to the streets, red squares on their lapels, in one of the largest, continuing mass demonstrations in Canadian history. In the end, a government fell and Canadians were reminded of the power of protest and civil disobedience. It was also the year of Thomas Mulcair, who won the NDP leadership and lifted support for the party across the country, until Justin Trudeau changed course on his own leadership ambitions and sparked new life in the moribund federal Liberal Party. The year saw the biggest food recall in Canadian history, a stunning CRTC decision that stopped telco giant BCE in its tracks, and enough mayoral hijinks to shake one’s faith in municipal governance.
But for all the flash and sizzle of those headline-making stories, we opted to recognize the quieter story of Kevin Page, civil servant, watchdog, persistent thorn in the side of the governing Tories, and perhaps the best opposition member never elected to Parliament. Despite Ottawa’s Orwellian grip on messaging, and despite public condemnation of his work by some of the most senior members in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, Page as Parliamentary Budget Officer has managed to cut through the noise, crunch the numbers, demand accountability and speak truth to spin. His reputation approaches that of former auditor-general Sheila Fraser. Like her, Page is loved or loathed depending on where you sit in the House of Commons. But he has been proved right, time and again, most recently on the F-35 cost fiasco. When his term as parliamentary budget officer comes to an end in a few months, taxpayers will lose an ally in Ottawa.
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To best understand Kevin Page, one must revisit Sept. 9, 2006, a day of deep tragedy and one that shook the career civil servant to his core.
Page was then a 27-year veteran of the bureaucracy, working as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assistant secretary for macroeconomic policy in the Privy Council Office, following the Tories’ minority government win earlier that year.
Living in the Ottawa suburb of Barrhaven, the married father of three was content in his role at the PCO, the nerve centre of the federal government.
Then everything changed.
On Sept. 9, Page’s eldest son, Tyler, 20, was killed by a freight train near Perth, Ont. The young man had been out with friends at a pub and was walking home alone when, his family believes, he likely tripped and bumped his head. A student at Algonquin College’s Perth campus, Tyler was hit by the train later that night.
“There is no recovery. You learn to cope. We try,” Page said. Ever since, he and his wife, Julie, and two surviving children, Jesse, now 24, and Chelsey, now 21, have been dealing with the loss.
Growing up in Thunder Bay, Page had learned from his parents not to be easily intimidated, he said. But after he lost Tyler, his outlook shifted; his attitude changed. Not only did he understand loss in a different and deeper way, he said, but he realized that nothing is permanent, that one’s sense of security can be pulled out from under you.
“I have taken too much for granted. Life is limited. My wife and I try hard not to worry about small things,” he told The Huffington Post Canada during a recent interview at his Ottawa office.
“After losing a son, I am not afraid of losing a job for doing what we feel is right and required.”
It’s that attitude that shaped his appointment as Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), a role that he initially had little interest in, but one that he eventually embraced with a fierce independence born of this new outlook on life.
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In 2006, the same year his son died, the Conservatives had moved swiftly after their election to create the position of a parliamentary budget officer within their flagship legislation, the Federal Accountability Act. When they were in opposition, the Tories, fed up with Liberal government budget projections that missed the mark by billions of dollars, had called for the establishment of a PBO as a sort of chief fact checker.
Almost from the beginning, the new watchdog’s mandate was up for debate. Critics questioned the wisdom of not making the parliamentary budget officer a fully independent agent of Parliament. The PBO was housed within the Library, the position classified as a lower-level public service executive and the appointment made by the Prime Minister with no opposition input.
“Right at the get-go, I knew that one of the reasons that no one wanted to be parliamentary budget officer was because the legislation was very flawed,” Page told HuffPost.
From the start of his term, Page set a confrontational tone with the government.
Seven months after his appointment – and smack in the middle of a federal election campaign – Page’s office published a costing of Canada’s participation in the Afghanistan war. His projection, made at the request of an NDP MP, pegged the cost at $18.1 billion by 2011 – far above the $8 billion the Tory government had previously promised – and it raised eyebrows.
So too did Page’s decision to make the report public while Parliament wasn’t sitting.
Ian Lee, the director of the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University and a self-described Kevin Page “fan,” said the timing of his release of the Afghan war analysis was unwise and is an unfortunate mark on his record.
“I believe he is non-partisan. However, some of his judgments provided ammunition to some of his critics that allowed them to make that claim,” Lee said.
“He should not have released that study. I lived in Ottawa all my life, my father was a public servant for 40 years, I’ve known tons of public servants and there is a very strong norm in this city that when the writ is dropped, everybody goes underground,” he said.
“No reports are released because you just don’t want to be seen as having an impact on the election in any way, shape or form.”
In his defence of the decision to release ‘The Fiscal Impact of the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan’ documents mid-campaign, Page said he was stuck in a “lose-lose situation.” If he hadn’t issued the Afghan report, he said, the opposition would have accused him of sitting on the figures for partisan reasons, while making them public brought complaints from the government that he was injecting himself in the election.
AT THE PLEASURE OF THE PM
He knew this job wasn’t going to be easy.
But the allure of creating something new, building an office and making a mark proved too great, he said. He wanted to make a positive difference for MPs and Canadians, and he saw the creation of the PBO as the means to do it.
When he was finally appointed in 2008, Page understood the immensity of the challenge.
“I work at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, and I don’t think that if you do the work – and sometimes this work can create a certain amount of anger from politicians – that you necessarily want to be working at pleasure,” he said.
“I don’t think it is the job of the parliamentary budget officer to be pleasurable. It is probably more the opposite.”
His brash nature, what he calls “grit,” is praised by the dozens of Canadians who write to him every week (he responds) and the opposition MPs who believe he has been a tremendous help in opening the black box of government finances.
To his critics, however, Page is an annoying media seeker who craves the spotlight, oversteps his mandate and has done little to help MPs understand financial procedures. His reports have contributed to making the public service even more cautious and closed-minded about public disclosure, they say.
After he released the Afghan war analysis, the Conservatives were livid.
The Speakers of the House of Commons and Senate thought Page had also gone too far and urged his boss, the parliamentary librarian, to rein him in. That triggered another public fight, this time between Page and then-librarian William Young, to whom he reported under the odd arrangement of the legislation. Page fought with Young for the right to publish his reports on the web rather than adhere to the library’s practice of writing confidential reports and releasing them to MPs only.
He also wanted a budget increase and the ability to hire his own staff, and he made his demands public.
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His very public quarrel with his boss was frowned upon by some in Ottawa, including Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett.
“I don't know of another bureaucrat or public servant who gets to go public when their budget is cut. A deputy minister would be fired,” she told the Hill Times in 2009.
After the death of his son, however, job security mattered little to Page. What mattered was making a difference. He believed that an independent Parliamentary Budget Officer could empower MPs, make the legislature stronger and foster better public policy decisions.
WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
For Lee, Page’s lasting legacy will be his fight to cement his independence vis-à-vis the Parliamentary library and the Speakers, as well as his tenacity in recruiting talented outside staff.
“He has such a tiny budget in this city (and) that organization, the PBO, has punched so far above its weight. It is truly remarkable,” he said.
Page has become so indispensable to the work of MPs that his office is now an “essential position,” said NDP finance critic Peggy Nash, who recently introduced a private member’s bill to make the PBO an agent of Parliament, which would place it on the same footing as the auditor general.
“It was Kevin Page who first sounded the alarm about the projected cost over-runs over the F-35’s procurement, and now we know today that cabinet actually knew those numbers and were not being forthright,” she said. “We have found his projections to be more accurate than the government’s projections.”
Page said he tried to provide value to all parliamentarians by picking “hot button issues” so that his small office, with its very big mandate, got a bigger bang for the taxpayers’ buck.
He knows that approach created an uncomfortable position for government MPs who probably wanted him to spend his days costing private member’s bills rather than F-35 fighter jets.
“Who knows, I may have had a public sector career after this if I had spent my time focussing on those low key issues that made everybody happy, particularly the government,” he told HuffPost.
Université de Moncton professor Donald Savoie believes Page erred in making his role so visible.
“I don’t think MPs are any better at understanding the government’s estimates or any better able to contribute to the debate than before he came in,” Savoie told HuffPost. “I think he (Page) saw himself a bit as a cowboy out in the meadow taking on the government. Helping MPs understand the budget process was never what he was about.”
Page said he regrets the fact that he hasn’t been able to get more support from the government’s backbench.
“I think it’s a symptom of the way parties have aligned themselves into these sorts of cohesive tribe-like-groups where they have to support the overall messages of the government even though we want them to come to Ottawa and represent their constituents from their ridings,” he said.
“It’s been frustrating. ... One of my biggest fears right from the beginning was that it would politicize our work, and we don’t want to be seen to be partisan.”
Another frustration, he said, has been his inability to reform the estimates process, a series of financial information releases that the government provides in different formats and at different times for MPs to scrutinize. The data are convoluted, and it is difficult for MPs to track where spending is actually increasing and what programs are being chopped. Page recommended changes, but at the end of the day, he said, it was the federal government’s decision not to streamline the process.
More than anything, Page said he wants the PBO to be an agent of change, a body that can level the playing field between the legislature, MPs and the executive. Right now, the government controls the information and can control the nature of debates, he noted. But MPs are better able to question government policy when the PBO publicly releases costing information on things such as the decision to buy 65 F-35 stealth fighter jets, or to reform the Old Age Security program because it is viewed as being unsustainable, he said.
Getting the data to build such projections has been very difficult, especially when it is not in the best interests of the government or the public service to release them, he said.
“We got little-to-nothing on F-35, little-to-nothing on crime bills.”
More recently, Page started a high-profile legal fight with the government after several departments refused to hand over detailed information on Ottawa’s decision to slash program spending by $5.2 billion.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Treasury Board President Tony Clement have all publicly suggested that Page overstepped his mandate and should be studying where money is spent – not where cuts are happening. Page wants the Federal Court to decide who is right.
He hopes the court will rule before he leaves the PBO in March at the end of his five-year term, but it could take many more months before there is a decision from the bench.
Two years into his mandate and after numerous squabbles with the government, Page made it clear he would not seek a new term. This would allow him to speak more openly about changing the legislation to make the PBO more independent, he said.
Mike Joyce, a retired senior assistant secretary at the Treasury Board Secretariat who worked with Page and is now an adjunct professor at Queen’s University, said the problems Page experienced are due in part to the very vague nature of his mandate.
“Another budget officer might have been more restrained, but Page made the PBO what he thought it should be,” Joyce said.
“He’s a fairly independent thinker. He likes thinking outside the box. He’s not risk averse, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s taken the bull by the horns and charged ahead in a way that he thinks is the appropriate way to go,” Joyce said.
“He leaves shoes of a particular size to fill.”
Time will tell, and not everyone will agree, but Page believes he was not a bad first choice for Parliamentary Budget Officer.
He was willing, and he was stubborn, he said.
“When you you lose a child, it makes it difficult for someone to threaten to take anything away from you,” he added.
“There are a lot of smarter people than yours truly, but not necessarily more gritty, so I think in that sense … I may have just been right for the times.”