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To be effective the Parliamentary budget office (PBO) must be given more power

Set out below is a letter-to-the-editor by Democracy Watch Board Member Duff Conacher which was published in the Hill Times on October 22, 2012

As many commentators do, your editorial about the Parliamentary budget officer (PBO) proposes that the solution to the problems Kevin Page has been having doing his job is to make him “clearly independent,” (“PBO fights for House, make it independent,” The Hill Times, Oct. 15, p. 8).

While it is important to make the PBO a fully independent officer of Parliament, appointed with the approval of all political parties, with a fixed term of office and control over his budget and staff, recent stonewalling by the Conservatives have made it very clear that isn’t enough to make the PBO effective.

An independent PBO could still face a government like the current Conservative government that claims the PBO is making illegal requests for information, claims the information will be available so there is no need to provide it now, and delays in providing information or never disclosing it making it impossible for the PBO to determine the actual cost of any government initiative.

Delay is a very effective way to thwart accountability, especially when an election is approaching as a government tries to hide scandalous information to keep voters in the dark about its actual governing record.

The auditor general and information commissioner have been dealing with secrecy and delays like this for decades, delays that have allowed dozens of Cabinet ministers and government officials to escape accountability dozens of times.

So, to have an effective PBO, the PBO must be given the power to order the release of information (as the information commissioners have in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec).  The PBO must also be given the power to fine government officials who refuse to comply with disclosure orders, with both the PBO and the government having the right to a quick reference appeal to court to settle disagreements (an appeal that must be fast-tracked, again to avoid undue delays).

If the PBO is made fully independent, but these changes are not made, the PBO will be independent, but continue to be ineffective.

And these powers should also be given to the federal information commissioner (the Conservatives promised in the 2006 election they would give the information commissioner the power to order the release of records), and the auditor general, to make them fully effective watchdogs.

For more details, go to Democracy Watch’s Voters Rights Campaign