OTTAWA – Canada’s outspoken budget watchdog warns he may have to shut down his office if funding he was promised is withheld.
Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page told a House committee Tuesday that he still has not been given any indication he will be given the $2.8 million earmarked for his office this year.
And if he doesn’t get it, he said he won’t be able to retain the qualified staff needed to prepare his reports on government expenditures on everything from budget reality checks to the bottom-line costs of the Afghan war.
“We have a small team of 15 people and four or five on (loan from other departments),” he said.
“If we don’t have that critical mass, it’s my recommendation that the Parliamentary Budget Office be shut down.”
The office was created by the Conservatives two years ago to give parliamentarians independent contextual information for budget projections. But almost immediately, Page and his staff have proven to be a burr in the government’s saddle.
Publicly and privately, Conservative MPs have complained that Page has been overly adversarial. The Conservatives were particularly incensed that the budget office released an accounting of the Afghan war costs, something the government refused to do. Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett was also among those who said Page had exceeded his mandate.
The budget officer has also crossed swords with the Library of Parliament that is supposed to supervise the release his work as well as members of the library committee for making some of his reports public without prior permission.
Page would not attribute blame for his funding problems, saying the question was for others to answer.
But NDP finance critic Thomas Mulcair says he has no doubt the Harper government is mainly to blame.
He said Transport Minister John Baird’s stunt of dumping 4,476 pages – and no computerized records – at the budget office last week in response to a request for information on Ottawa’s stimulus spending reflected the depth of the government’s scorn for Page.
“One is forced to conclude that John Baird was expressing the contempt of the Conservative government against someone who has proven again and again more capable than the Minister of Finance (Jim Flaherty) in providing valid financial information,” he said.
Yet Tory MP Ted Menzies, the finance minister’s parliamentary secretary, praised Page at the committee hearing Tuesday, telling him, “You absolutely do good work.”
Page released a report on Monday which questioned whether Ottawa’s plan to eliminate the deficit in a reasonable time is tenable. The report said the government would still be $20 billion in the hole in five year’s time.
On Tuesday, he questioned whether the government will be able to spend the $16-billion infrastructure stimulus within the two years timeline imposed by the budget.
He said municipalities, which be letting out most of the construction projects, will be hit with an impossible crush next summer in trying to spend all the funds, and that a sizable portion of the stimulus may be left on the table.
“There is risk we’ll lapse significant amount of money. The government may wish to explore the timelines for the program,” he said. Page is calling for a one-year extension of the program.
He also questioned whether Ottawa’s stimulus will create or save the 220,000 jobs it claims, even if all the money is spent.
One out of every three infrastructure dollars earmarked for spending over the past two years wound up unspent, Page said in later testimony to the Senate banking committee.