The Last of the Lapointe Fish Market Budgets?

And so, as we recover from Tuesday’s budget and recoil at the spectacle that is the Cadman affair, let us all pause and mark this moment for it may be the last of an era, one we may come to know as the “pre-PBO” era, an era where, in the context of contrived “budgetary scarcity,” the political goal is to ensure that newspaper coverage ends up wrapping dead fish down at Lapointe’s fish market instead of drowning the government in a sea of bad press (the Liberals were masters of Lapointe fish market budgets in the late 1990s).

For in a short while, possibly as soon as next week, we will know the name of another player in the budgetary process, a person who will be known as the Parliamentary Budgetary Officer or PBO for short. As some of you may know, the idea for a PBO emerged out of the frustration felt by the opposition parties during the Chretien/Martin era over a string of unexpectedly large budgetary surpluses, a trend that has continued unabated through to today and which, if I had to bet, is likely to continue into the near future, notwithstanding much bleating to the contrary. In principle, the PBO is supposed to help Parliament hold the government to account over its forecasting practices and thereby, hopefully, help it avoid the kind of “unexpectedly” large surpluses we have grown accustomed to.

Despite the fairly clear legislative mandate for the new position (see Bill C-2, last parliament),  a Feb. 13 meeting between senior Library of Parliament officials and the Finance Committee (House of Commons) suggests that the precise nature of the PBO’s role remains unclear. At the meeting, library officials suggested that the PBO’s job will be to shed light on the assumptions that underlie Department of Finance and other fiscal forecasts. Based on the transcript however, Parliamentarians seem to want a separate set of non-partisan purely objective forecasts to the extent such a being exists (it doesn’t but when has that every stopped anyone?).

In any case, it is difficult to imagine how PBO forecasts could not become a political football (it maybe already has) , used by opposition parties to attack the government or by the government to browbeat the opposition. If that scenario unfolds, there is a good chance the PBO will eventually meet with the same fate as the Economic Council of Canada, i.e. death by decree with Department of Finance daggers lodged deeply into the backs of PBO officials. We live in a Parliamentary system after all, not a presidential, republican system where something like the Congressional Research Office can survive and indeed prosper in part because of the division of powers.

In any case, all of this is somewhat beside the large point for progressives. What really matters is that the PBO will likely to be very much a consensus player, one that sticks pretty close to the consensus forecast because as Keynes remarked (paraphrasing somewhat), worldly wisdom teaches it is better (for your credibility and your continued existence) to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally. Don’t expect to see any CCPA fiscal forecasts come out of the PBO, i.e., well outside of consensus but more right than wrong. It would take a brave, and perhaps foolish, PBO to depart too radically from convention and consensus. Bottom line: For progressives, do not expect great things from PBO. For political junkies and students of bureaucratic Ottawa on the other hand …

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