The Liberal government‚Äôs proposed changes to make the parliamentary budget officer and chief statistician more independent are important, ‚Äúpositive‚ÄĚ steps, say experts, but the ‚Äúdevil is in the details,‚ÄĚ and timing for legislation remains unknown.
‚ÄúThis is something that we have been advocating [for] since day one in fact,‚ÄĚ said Assistant Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) Mostafa Askari, who‚Äôs been with the office since it launched in 2008.
Having the PBO under the larger umbrella of the Library of Parliament ‚Äúcreates tensions,‚ÄĚ he said, and the proposal to make it an independent officer of Parliament, among other things, will ‚Äúenhance‚ÄĚ the office‚Äôs power and is a ‚Äúpositive step.‚ÄĚ
‚Äú[Currently] on admin issues like hiring and HR and finances issues, we have to rely on the decisions and the policies of the Library, and in the beginning, specifically in the first few years, you had a lot of problems with the head of the Library at the time. It took us a long time to get approval for staffing of senior people and those kinds of things can create problems,‚ÄĚ said Mr. Askari.
Former parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, now at the University of Ottawa, said the changes would ‚Äústrengthen‚ÄĚ the office, and similarly recalled running into many ‚Äúback offices issues‚ÄĚ when it was being set-up.
‚Äú’Why do you need to hire these people?’ ‘Why do you need your own website?’ ‘Why do you want to enter into a contract with this firm?’ In some cases they could be used as obstacles that could prevent you from doing your job,‚ÄĚ he recalled.
‚ÄúWe had some difficult early years in terms of working with Parliament, working with bureaucracy, putting out products that maybe people hadn‚Äôt seen before.‚ÄĚ
Originally promised in the Liberal 2015 election platform, the recent fall economic update, tabled Nov. 1, has provided a bit more detail on the government‚Äôs plans to change and strengthen both the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the chief statistician.
These changes include making the PBO an independent, ‚Äúproperly funded‚ÄĚ officer of Parliament, with appointment based on merit, subject to Parliament‚Äôs approval, and only removable ‚Äúfor cause,‚ÄĚ as described in the economic update. The PBO would be granted greater access to ‚Äúrelevant‚ÄĚ information from departments and Crown corporations, ‚Äúbalanced against necessary restrictions, such as protection of privacy, commercially sensitive information and issues of national security.‚ÄĚ As well, the PBO‚Äôs new mandate would include the costing of party platform proposals at the request of parties.
Meanwhile, the chief statistician‚Äôs decision-making authority over the statistical methodology, production and release of statistics would be legislated, according to the government‚Äôs proposal, and transparency around government decisions and directives to Statistics Canada would be increased. The National Statistics Council would be replaced with a new Canadian Statistics Advisory Council, and the chief statistician would be appointed on a fixed, five-year renewable term, based on merit, and only removable ‚Äúfor cause.‚ÄĚ
In response to questions from The Hill Times, Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) said legislative proposals to amend the Parliament of Canada Act to change ‚Äúthe mandate and structure of the PBO to enhance its independence,‚ÄĚ will be ‚Äúput forth in due course.‚ÄĚ
Similarly, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains‚Äô (Mississauga-Malton, Ont.) office indicated that there is not yet a date for presenting legislation to make changes related to the role of the chief statistician at Statistics Canada, for which Mr. Bains is responsible.
Strengthening the PBO is a ‚Äúvery positive‚ÄĚ step, said Mr. Page, but the ‚Äúhigh-level language‚ÄĚ of the fall update leaves questions over just how the PBO‚Äôs mandate will be adjusted, including whether it will still be asked to provide independent analysis on the economy and fiscal forecasting, which wasn‚Äôt mentioned.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs a very important area. It‚Äôs good for Parliament, it‚Äôs good for Canadians to have additional data points on where the economy is going,‚ÄĚ said Mr. Page, adding he‚Äôs hoping it ‚Äúwon‚Äôt be an omission in the legislation.‚ÄĚ
Accessing government data is something the PBO has long struggled with, even taking the matter to Federal Court in an effort to get access to government spending figures. Mr. Askari said the wording around increasing the PBO‚Äôs access to information would be ‚Äúextremely important,‚ÄĚ as right now it‚Äôs ‚Äúvery broad and very sort of weak and soft.‚ÄĚ
Mr. Askari said information needed to properly do costing, for example, often goes beyond just financial information, like a statement of requirements for procurement projects, like with the F-35s. As well, the PBO is denied information to detailed tax information via the Income Tax Act, he said, limiting the office‚Äôs ability to do tax cut analyses.
‚ÄúThere has to be consequential amendments to various acts, including [the] Income Tax Act, that would provide an exception for PBO to have, for example, the AG [Auditor General] has that exception,‚ÄĚ he said, noting the PBO can ‚Äúmaintain the confidentiality of the data‚ÄĚ while doing its work.
Making the PBO‚Äôs appointment merit based and only removable for cause‚ÄĒrather than serving at the pleasure of the government‚ÄĒare also important changes, said Mr. Page, and will help Parliament find new PBOs in the future. When the office was first being set up, following legislation from the previous Conservative government passed in 2006, ‚Äúnobody wanted to do the job,‚ÄĚ said Mr. Page, who was working in the Privy Council Office at the time. It took until 2008 to get the office running.
‚ÄúNobody [was showing up] for the interview ‚Ä¶ they just saw at the time that the office was set up to fail,‚ÄĚ he said, leading him to be ‚Äústrongly encouraged‚ÄĚ to step forward.
‚ÄúIf you‚Äôre putting out reports with very different numbers, and this could affect the trust or confidence in the government potentially ‚Ä¶ you could easily be dismissed,‚ÄĚ he said, adding he took the job because he saw an ‚Äúopportunity to build something‚ÄĚ and was already at the end of his public service career after almost three decades.
Mr. Page stressed that additional resources will need to be provided to the PBO, not only if it‚Äôs made an independent officer of Parliament, but also if its mandate is going to be expanded to tackle the costing of party platforms. Doing so won‚Äôt be easy and will ‚Äúbe a challenge to set that up and deliver quality work that protects the independence of the office,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúWhen we get to the budget, when we get to legislation, we‚Äôll see,‚ÄĚ said Mr. Page, adding that based on the fact that the Liberal campaign commitments have been reiterated in the fall update, he expects ‚Äúwe‚Äôll see [legislation] sooner rather than later.‚ÄĚ
Adding the costing of party platforms to the PBO‚Äôs mandate is a proposal that‚Äôs caused much concern.
Mr. Askari said that how the process is organized will be important, with clear objectives needed, as it risks the PBO being accused of partisanship‚ÄĒand it‚Äôll require a ‚Äúlot of manpower,‚ÄĚ and access to information that‚Äôs currently out of reach, in order to accomplish.
In September, Wayne Smith resigned as chief statistician, charging that Statistics Canada‚Äôs independence has been ‚Äúcompromised‚ÄĚ since the previous Conservative government‚Äôs decision to centralize all information technology services under Shared Services Canada. Despite efforts to ‚Äúconvince‚ÄĚ the Liberals to amend the situation, he said in a note to staff that he had ‚Äúnot succeeded.‚ÄĚ
Speaking with The Hill Times last week, Mr. Smith said the proposed changes are looking ‚Äúpositive,‚ÄĚ though perhaps not ‚Äúworld class,‚ÄĚ and he‚Äôs ‚Äúanxious‚ÄĚ to see legislation.
‚ÄúUntil we see the legislation, we can‚Äôt be absolutely sure, weasel words might be snuck in,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúStatistics Canada has to have the ability, if Shared Services Canada either refuses, or is unable to, or cannot provide the services at a reasonable price, Statistics Canada should have an alternative power to provide the service to itself or to go to some other party,‚ÄĚ said Mr. Smith. It‚Äôs an effective veto over Statistics Canada‚Äôs work that isn‚Äôt addressed in the proposed changes as described so far.
‚ÄúYou can say that the chief statistician is responsible for the methods and the collection and the operations and the dissemination of the data, but if the chief statistician can‚Äôt control the informatics infrastructure, they don‚Äôt really control those things,” said Mr. Smith. “That needs to be resolved in a clear and unambiguous way.‚ÄĚ
Since leaving, he said he‚Äôs heard Statistics Canada has gotten a ‚Äúlot more attention from Shared Services,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúsome of the more immediate issues are being dealt with.‚ÄĚ
But, he added, ‚Äúthe fundamental governance issue is still there.‚ÄĚ
Having directives and decisions made public would help ‚Äúprotect the chief statistician from inappropriate interventions,‚ÄĚ said Mr. Smith, and ‚Äúideally‚ÄĚ legislation will require such things to be disclosed before Parliament.
The law also needs to be ‚Äúmodernized,‚ÄĚ such as allowing researchers ‚Äúmore access to confidential data in secure environments,‚ÄĚ and making it ‚Äúthe obligation of business to provide access‚ÄĚ to data ‚Äúclearer‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒas well as legislating the protection of the national census from government intervention.
Mr. Smith also said more detail is needed on how ‚Äúmerit‚ÄĚ for appointments will be defined, and on what the role of the new advisory council will be and whom it will report to, considering that depending on how it’s arranged, it could ‚Äúpotentially be a back door for inappropriate influence.‚ÄĚ
Overall, he said the changes proposed are ‚Äúmore encouraging than [he] would have expected when [he] resigned,‚ÄĚ and if outlined in legislation as proposed, it ‚Äúwould be [an] unambiguous improvement in terms of Canada‚Äôs national statistical system and chief statistician,‚ÄĚ and the office would be ‚Äúbetter protected in the past.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúMy sense is a good part of it is not going to be there [in legislation]‚Ä¶ But having said that, progress is progress,‚ÄĚ said Mr. Smith.
Conservative MP Alex Nuttall (Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte, Ont.) said the proposals appear ‚Äúpositive,‚ÄĚ but the ‚Äúdevil is always in the details,‚ÄĚ and he‚Äôs waiting to see what‚Äôs laid out in the actual legislation before making a final decision.
Meanwhile, Conservative MP Dan Albas (Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola, B.C.) said he‚Äôs ‚Äúconcerned‚ÄĚ over the proposal to have the PBO do the costing of party platforms. As well, he said increasing access to information for the PBO comes down to a government‚Äôs willingness.
‚ÄúIf a government doesn‚Äôt want to disclose these things, they have ways of getting around it. So I‚Äôd like to see the government act, rather than having to have the media find these things out, I‚Äôd like to see a better relationship with parliamentarians,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThe PBO is not the opposition and it is designed there to put information out for everyone.‚ÄĚ
While he wants to see details, Mr. Albas said he has no indication of timing for legislation for either changes‚ÄĒto the PBO or Statistics Canada‚ÄĒand said he thinks they were only noted in the fall update ‚Äúas a little sweetener‚ÄĚ to some of the bad news in it.
NDP MP Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette-T√©miscouata-Les Basques, Que.) said the NDP has long fought for independence for the PBO, and noted more resources will also be needed. But with a year passed since the Liberals stepped into government, he said he doesn‚Äôt see why it‚Äôs taken so long for a bill to come forward.
‚ÄúIn the meantime the chief statistician actually resigned over a lack of transparency and a lack of independence,‚ÄĚ he said.
The Hill Times
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