Monday, October 12, 2009

The Conservatives and the PBO

Rounding out my survey of the positions of Canada's political parties on the PBO, let me now turn to the governing Conservatives. In their 2006 platform (I got it here) there is a section on page 11 that reads:
Ensure truth in budgeting with a Parliamentary Budget Authority

In the spring of 2004, the Liberal government told Canadians that the 2003-04 surplus would only be $1.9 billion. In fact, it was $9.1 billion. In 2004-05, the Liberals spent about $9 billion at the end of the year to reduce their surplus to only $1.6 billion. Just this year, the 2005 Budget estimated the 2005-06 surplus at $4 billion, a number no reputable economic forecaster accepted.

In the economic update only nine months later, this estimate had ballooned to $13.4 billion. Governments cannot be held to account if Parliament does not know the accurate state of public finances.

The plan
A Conservative government will:
• Create an independent Parliamentary Budget Authority to provide objective analysis directly to Parliament about the state of the nation’s finances and trends in the national economy.
• Require government departments and agencies to provide accurate, timely information to the Parliamentary Budget Authority to ensure it has the information it needs to provide accurate analyses to Parliament.
• Ensure that government fiscal forecasts are updated quarterly and that they provide complete data for both revenue and spending forecasts.
Two comments from me on this:
  1. I think the Conservatives deserve a lot of credit for their innovative thinking on this persistent problem in Canadian public policy and governance. Credit where it is due.
  2. I score them 2.5/3 on the three elements of their plan. They did require information to be provided by government departments. They did ensure that the PBO has enough information for quarterly reports on revenue and spending. However, on the first bullet they only get part marks. They did create the Authority, but they didn't make it independent.
My hope is simply that the Conservatives go the distance and fulfill this campaign promise for an independent authority. This promise is quite consistent with the traditionally conservative principle of keeping a very careful and prudent eye on public finances, lest government taxation and spending run amok.

Canadians have a variety of opinions on the legacy of the Reform Party from the 1990s. But I suspect that the 'democratic accountability' element of the Reform legacy is one that resonates with almost all Canadians as a positive contribution to Canadian politics.

It seems to me that there is no strong reason--other than short-term political expediency--for conservatives or Conservatives to want to 'shackle' the PBO. I'm not so naive as to believe that short-term political expediency is not given weight in decision-making by any government. But, in my view, it is important to point out when good short-run politics is chosen over good long-run policy.

I'm quite sure there are differences of opinion on the PBO within the Conservative caucus. I hope those who support independence will find their voice.