Only The PBO Cares About Costs

You’re going to buy a house. A big house. How much does it cost? You don’t know. You didn’t ask.

How big will the mortgage be? What about the monthly payments? Can you manage them? What effect will they have on your overall financial situation? You don’t know. You don’t want to know. And when a guy tells you it’s important to figure this stuff out before you sign the papers, and he does some calculations for you, you call him names and tell him to get lost.

You are Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The guy who thinks you should know the cost of the house before you buy it is Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page.

“Every time Parliament is looking at new legislation,” Page says, “they should get financial analysis. What is this going to cost? More often than not, they haven’t been getting that.”

That part of the story is familiar to anyone following the news. The Harper government dislikes sharing information with Parliament and it often resists Parliament’s demands that it do so. Even when the information involves spending – and is therefore connected to the financial oversight which is Parliament’s most fundamental role – the government stonewalls.

That’s notorious and appalling. But a less-familiar part of the story is worse.

How much will the Harper government’s omnibus crime bill cost? It has never shared a serious costing with Parliament. But that’s not because it’s stonewalling Parliament. It’s because the government has never done a serious costing.

This week, Page’s office released its cost estimate of changes to conditional sentencing, which is one component of bill C-10, the government’s omnibus crime bill. Two PBO analysts spent months doing the work. They started by going to Statistics Canada, which has the key data. StatsCan told them no one had ever before done what they were doing. In other words, the government has never even made a serious attempt to estimate the costs of its legislation, let alone make that estimate available to Parliament.

This gobsmacking fact is also evident in the budget, at least implicitly. “You can’t find anything in the budget for the tough on crime agenda,” Page notes. “That has never happened in my 30 years (in the civil service). I’ve never seen a government get elected on a major agenda and put in new legislation and not show how it impacts on the fiscal framework. Never seen it.”

When Page left his senior position in the Privy Council Office to become Parliamentary Budget Officer, he expected that the numbers his office produced would always be in addition to the government’s own figures. Public discussion would benefit from the insight of multiple perspectives and methodologies. “We never should be the only data point with analysis around it,” he says.

And yet that’s often the case. The government either delivers nothing or it offers numbers without any real analysis, which are really just political props. Even on a big-ticket item such as the proposed purchase of F-35 fighter jets, which Page’s office analysed, the government hasn’t really tried to figure out the cost. “On F-35, they never had a briefing. Nobody ever did an independent estimate on those sorts of things,” Page says.

For having the temerity to point this out, and provide cost estimates of his own, the government has attacked Page at every opportunity.

But the dereliction of duty goes beyond the federal government.

Look at the provinces. Most of the costs associated with C-10, and earlier “tough on crime” legislation, will be borne by provincial governments, and they’ve known for many years that those costs were coming because that’s how long it has taken the Conservatives to pass the legislation. But Page’s office has worked closely with provincial officials and “we have no evidence that they’ve done costing,” Page says.

Then there are the federal opposition parties. Last October, NDP public safety critic Jasbir Sandhu published an op-ed in which he stated “the Parliamentary Budget Office estimates that C-10 will cost” $11 to $15 billion over five years. Other opposition MPs have repeated these figures. They appear frequently in criticisms of the government’s policies. They’re false. The PBO has never estimated the full cost of C-10. When I asked Sandhu where he got the numbers he said they “were based on a preliminary projection from the PBO.” That’s misleading, too.

Page says he often encounters distorted claims about the PBO’s findings. Sometimes they’re the result of MPs taking what the PBO actually says, making a series of assumptions, extrapolating wildly, and coming up with impressively large figures. “At some point nobody recognizes any of these numbers,” Page says. But still they are attributed to the PBO.

Do MPs even care about accurate information, or are numbers only politics by other means? On Tuesday, the PBO released its first cost estimate of a component of C-10.

“We had a 9: 30 briefing session for MPs,” Page says. “We had one member of Parliament show up, from the Bloc.”

Negligence has consequences. “How did the U.S. get into the mess it’s in right now? How did the southern European countries get into the mess they’re in right now? How did Canada get into its mess of the mid-1990s?” Many factors are involved in fiscal fiascos, Page says, but one constant is the people in charge “are not costing things properly.”

Page is worried. “From the bottom up, we’re not doing the heavy lifting. People are not doing their jobs.”