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Diplomacy first, but new PBO says he’s not afraid to take departments to court

By Jolson Lim      

Yves Giroux started into a seven-year term Sept. 4, and though he says he’s not exactly Kevin Page, he’s willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to get fiscal data for Parliamentarians.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux jumps to the PBO from a 23-year career in the public service, with stints at Finance Canada, the Privy Council Office, and the Canada Revenue Agency. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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Canada’s new parliamentary budget officer says he’s ready to do what needs to be done to deliver government financial information to Parliamentarians and the public, even if it means going to court or putting him at odds with bureaucrats he’s worked with before.

“I might be characterized as somebody who will be very demanding of departments when it comes to delivering on my mandate, but I’m not going to take positions or fights just for the sake of taking up fights,” said Yves Giroux on Aug. 30 just before starting the new job on Sept. 4, in his first sit-down interview with The Hill Times.

“If somebody stands in my way, as I said in the Senate, I’ll do whatever it takes to be able to deliver on my mandate: respond to questions of Parliamentarians, and provide them with information, and also ensure Canadians have the information they need.”

In June, he told Senators at a committee-of-the-whole meeting that he would be prepared to take departments to court as a last resort.

“The legislation clearly says that I would have to do this, and I would do whatever it takes,” he said, in response to a question by Liberal Senator Percy Downe (Charlottetown, P.E.I.). “If it means bringing a department to court, it’s unfortunate, but so be it.”

Mr. Giroux, 45, is to serve a seven-year term until 2025, starting at a salary of between $216,900 and $255,200. He replaces Jean-Denis Fréchette, who wraps up a five-year term as the second-ever permanent PBO.

The generally soft-spoken Mr. Giroux jumps to the PBO from a 23-year career in the public service, with stints at Finance Canada, the Privy Council Office (PCO), and the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).

He’s built many relationships in his time in the bureaucracy, which includes a stint as a top economic adviser to ministers and then-prime minister Stephen Harper, but said he’s well aware his new position may produce conflict and disagreement.

Mr. Giroux pointed to expected differences in costing proposals and economic assumptions on deficit forecasts and growth as areas likely to produce conflict. He said the fact that his job is a fixed term and not one in which he can be removed at any time without cause should help guard against attacks.

Explain clearly, be precise, and allow those you are demanding information from to understand your frame of mind, he said.

“We’ll have civilized disagreements, but I don’t think it’ll get personal.”

The federal government has in the past been reluctant to turn over information to the office. Former PBOs Kevin Page, Sonia L’Heureux, and Mr. Fréchette had each wrestled with the CRA in trying to get data that could determine how much the Canadian government was losing to tax evasion.

The years-long fight, which involved threats of legal action by the PBO, eventually led to an agreement to provide tax data to the office in February. The CRA was worried it was compromising individuals’ tax privacy and that the scope of the information requested was too large and granular, based on thousands of income ranges. In June, the CRA released a report finding that up to $3-billion in tax revenue was lost to offshore tax havens.

Mr. Giroux had in fact been the assistant commissioner of the Strategy and Integration Branch and the chief data officer at the CRA from 2015 until just before he moved to his new role, and was tasked with communicating with the PBO on the issue. He was able to help reach an alternative solution based on providing the fiscal watchdog with data grouped into fewer income ranges.

I think by talking to each other and understanding each other’s objectives, we came to the best possible solution,” Mr. Giroux said.

While not involved from the start of the dispute, he said, “given that we came to a resolution without significant change in legislation regarding the Income Tax Act, it seems to me that it was solution that could’ve been agreed to early, but bygones are bygones.”

‘I don’t think I’ll exactly be like Kevin’

Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux, left, sits down with The Hill Times‘ Jolson Lim on Aug. 30. He said he’s ready to deliver on his mandate, taking the feds to court if needed. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

The PBO is one of the country’s most well-known fiscal watchdogs, providing independent and non-partisan analysis to Parliamentarians on the federal government’s spending and finances.

The office was originally created by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2006 as a way to improve fiscal accountability in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal. Mr. Page, a career public servant, was appointed its first officer in 2008. But the PBO soon became a political problem of its own making for the Conservative government.

In March 2011, the PBO published its own costing of the purchasing of F-35 fighter jets, concluding that the Department of National Defence missed its projections by a whopping $20-billion.

In 2012, Mr. Page attempted to take the government to court over its refusal to turn over information about its efforts to reduce government spending levels. The case was dismissed in 2013, but the Conservatives, among others, accused Mr. Page of overstepping his mandate.

Mr. Page, now the head of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy, said “the future for [the] PBO is bright.”

“Yves will benefit by stronger legislation and an expanded budget to address an expanded mandate,” he said, adding that while some experienced PBO staff have retired, it will mean others can and will step up to help him. 

Commentators have often contrasted Mr. Page’s tenure as PBO, marked by vocal advocacy for the office and for government accountability, with Mr. Fréchette’s calmer term. Mr. Giroux said Mr. Page was “put in a very difficult position to begin with.”

“He had to establish the credibility of an institution,” he said. “And thanks to him and Jean-Denis, the office has evolved into what it is now: an agent of Parliament, arm’s-length, appointed.”

“I’m not in the exact same position. I don’t think I’ll exactly be like Kevin. But delivering on my mandate will be my priority. “

Mr. Giroux also takes over an office that has been provided more resources, albeit with a sizeable new task of costing party platforms for future elections, thanks to legislative changes last year. Its budget is about $7.6-million for the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to the government’s main estimates.

Mr. Fréchette had raised concerns about giving the PBO the task of costing party election platforms, saying the new powers risk the independent office of “becoming a political instrument” and worried that the office didn’t have enough resources to complete the task. 

Mr. Giroux said he’s confident the office will be ready before the next general election in 2019, and is using his first few months to further prepare. He said he hopes political parties won’t flood his office with last-minute costing requests.

The politically charged campaign period may produce criticism of the office’s costing, as well as accusations of party favouritism. Mr. Giroux acknowledges the public nature of the PBO role at first made him hesitant to apply, but said he’s accepted criticisms will come, and that his former public servant role speaks for itself.

“I’ll be in a good position to defend the non-partisan nature of the office,” he said. “As a public servant, I served both Conservative and Liberal ministers equally well. I think I’ll be able to serve all parties in the House and in the Senate equally well.”

Mr. Giroux began his public service career in 1995, when he first joined Finance Canada and worked on tax policy. He later jumped to PCO and then returned to the finance ministry as director of social policy from 2005 to 2011. While at PCO from 2011 to 2015, he advised ministers and top bureaucrats on economic issues including growth projections, government spending, cost-cutting exercises, and tax policy. He also worked on preparing federal budgets and the fall economic update. At the CRA, he was responsible for provincial and territorial relations, innovation, reporting, strategic policy, and data.

Mr. Giroux, a father of two, said in his spare time he likes to run, and is a “news junkie” currently following the Quebec election. He is a graduate of the University of Montreal, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in economics. 

He said the PBO will likely bring more stress, but that it’s “by far the most exciting” job he’s had.

jlim@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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