Numbers guy speaks out

By Rob Wipond, May 2013

Former federal Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page exhorts Canadians to "wake up."

Parliamentary institutions that bolster Canadian democracy “are under attack right now like I’ve never seen them before in my 35 years of public service.” The warning had a particularly sharp sting coming from recently departed federal Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page. Brought to UVic by the Green Party, Page was speaking to a packed lecture hall in April. No partisan firebrand, Page is just a lifelong bureaucrat and self-described “numbers guy” who became increasingly frustrated, then appalled, and then positively worried witnessing important national financial decisions being made “based on ideology alone” and without accountability to anyone.

Page discussed his office’s court case seeking the actual details of the Conservatives’ 2012 Budget and its proposed billions in cuts. “I cannot even think of a more fundamental way to undermine parliament than to say we’re not giving you any plans; we’re giving you nothing to hold us to account,” said Page. “That is what is happening right now. That, to me, is unbelievable. That is wrong.”

Page described a litany of financial decisions related to vast undertakings—the war in Afghanistan, fighter plane purchases, old age security—where no budgets were provided, even to Conservative backbenchers who had to vote for them. In many cases, Page’s office was the first to research the costs. “There’s not even one piece of paper that explained; there was nothing that showed up in any budget on the tough-on-crime legislation,” said Page. And when his office asked how much the mandatory longer sentences would cost provincial prisons, provincial governments told him the Conservatives had never asked. “We were doing the only analyses of some of these big decisions,” said Page. “And the government was providing press releases with no numbers to the majority of Canadians and saying, ‘Trust us.’”

This previous Finance Ministry and Treasury Board insider also contended that intra-government budgets are deliberately written so convolutedly that “nobody” can make sense of them. “How do I know that?” asked Page. “Guilty as charged. I worked in that system.” 

Page said his son’s death gave him a passion to live differently. Yet he found his own positive impacts were limited. “We have no system in place right now to hold the government to account,” said Page. “Where can you go to the bank and say, ‘You know what, I could really use $30 billion right now. And here’s my press release.’”

The roomful of pained laughter gave the answer: apparently, you can do it in Canada, that’s where.

Witnessing the frequent spontaneous applause and three standing ovations, it was obvious we’re hungry in these troubled times for a Canadian hero, and Page is such a hero to many. Yet ironically, or perhaps pointedly, it seemed Page was simply someone who’d done his job appropriately—but without fearing potential repercussions for his own career. 

On solutions, Page challenged us to demand more of our elected representatives. “You need to wake up. How is this going to get better? Are we just going to wait for political leaders someday like [Elizabeth] May to turn it around for us, or are people going to stand up?” 

When Page in passing criticized recent attempts to muzzle government scientists, I probably wasn’t the only one wishing that most government bureaucrats like him weren’t muzzled already. 

—Rob Wipond