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November 27, 2015

Harper: "Truth and Lies on Parliament Hill"

Scott Stockdale

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In March 2008, the Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper fulfilled a 2006 election campaign promise by appointing Kevin Page as Canada's first parliamentary budget officer.

Mr. Harper, at the time claiming it was all about accountability and he planned to create a more fiscally transparent Parliament Hill, said he was establishing an independent budget authority - the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) - that would deliver a form of objective analysis for members of Parliament and related parliamentary committees.

Although he managed to serve his full five-year term, Mr. Page said in his recently released book “Truth and Lies on Parliament Hill”, that the Harper government consistently attempted to discredit people who stood in opposition on the Hill or dared to disagree with its programs or policies.

Moreover, Mr. Page wrote on page 52 that, “Many times our government would not provide us with the information we needed, no matter how much we begged or threatened.”

He added that “Canadians should be concerned that we often had to secure our own national data from sources outside Ottawa.”

Unlike the Congressional Budget Office in Washington, D.C., Canada had never had a mechanism for open disagreement with government financial policy; and this was supposed to change under the Harper government.

In the words of Mr. Page, the PBO was “responsible for financial due diligence before Parliament spends money. That is, it has to look ahead and forecast.”

However, when the PBO office produced work which contradicted the Harper government's position on any issue, the response was to attack the messenger of the bad news and for heaven's sake don't let this bad news leak out into the public domain.

Mr. Page said on page 104 that “the government always claimed that the work emanating from our office was partisan in nature or an academic exercise.”

Although Harper government officials wanted to make the messenger the story - rather than the message - Mr. Page wrote on page 104 that “In those five years that I was at the PBO, the government and senior public service personnel never came back to Parliament or us with a substantive response on any of our reports.”

Meanwhile, he made it clear that like the government scientists and most other governmental departments, the PBO was being muzzled by the Harper government.

“We believed that our office should not be asked to labour on a project for months, using taxpayers' money, only to find out that the benefit of the work would not be made public because an MP did not like the analysis provided.”

Moreover, on page 56 he indicated that this was just the tip of the iceberg of the Harper government's efforts to keep Canadians in the dark, on numerous government activities.

“The Harper government has allowed very few people from the various governmental departments to share even minor bits of information with the media. If anyone talks out of turn, they have to pay a steep price for perceived lack of loyalty.”

While Mr. Harper and a chorus of right-wing commentators continue to boast that Canadians' taxes are the lowest they've been since John Diefenbaker was prime minister, Mr. Page tells the other side of the story on page 99.

“The PBO commented on the structural nature of our national deficit and noted that the government had created it in part by cutting sales and income taxes. The government reacted negatively to those assertions yet could provide no counter analysis, a response that occurred over and over again and always dumbfounded me as an economist.”

Mr. Page explained that “a structural deficit means that you're swimming with an economic rock tied around your neck over an extended period of time; in such circumstances, you have a good chance of sinking to the bottom of the lake.”

Perhaps the quintessential example of the modus operandi of the Harper government is illustrated with regard to it's much-ballyhooed “tough on crime policy'' – dog whistle politics at its best, as it's raw meat for “the base” Mr. Harper constantly referred to.

On page 113, Mr. Page said: “You don't have to be an economist to realize that if you keep people in jail longer and add to the numbers who are incarcerated, your costs will inevitably increase ... The Conservatives were telling members of Parliament to study and vote as told, on demand, on a new bill that would change the Criminal Code of Canada without any financial basis for their vote. There was no White Paper explaining the policy change. There was no financial costing analysis ... All this from a government selling itself as a good fiscal manager – a government that brought in the Accountability Act to renew Parliament.”

He added that eventually Justice Minister Toews conceded that the federal cost would be pegged at approximately $2 billion over a five-year period – in line with PBO estimates. Try to find this figure in the Canadian press.

But one again that's not the whole story, according to Mr. Page. On page 116 he wrote: “In addition, the provinces and territories would have to shoulder the costs of building more cells because the federal government had silently changed the Criminal Code, knowing that this outcome for provinces was inevitable.”

These are but a few of the many arguments – supported by cold, hard facts – that Mr. Page presents throughout the book to buttress his conclusion that the Harper government was undermining democracy by disregarding facts that did not support its political agenda. Mr. Page - and hopefully he's not alone – believes that elected officials need accurate, independently verified data to support the implementation of government policies and programs.

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