All gotcha! all the time

In today'sToronto Star, columnist James Travers claims the PMO is trying to silence the PBO because... sorry, lapsed into Acronyese there. He says the Prime Minister is refusing funding and otherwise making life difficult for the new Parliamentary Budget Officer because, Travers asserts, "In short order, and with gold standard analysis, the budget officer first embarrassed Conservatives by revealing the soaring costs of the Afghanistan war during the fall election. Then he cast deficit shadows over sunny economic forecasts. Retribution in Ottawa is swift and summary." This assessment does not merely reflect but contributes to a fairly serious problem. The Parliamentary Budget Office, as I noted recently in a column, was established to strengthen the voice of MPs not compete with, supplement or supplant it and some former MPs are concerned that it's exceeding its mandate. The PBO claims it's not, arguing among other things that it automatically makes all its reports public to avoid getting caught up in spin and manipulation. Which I believe is the right approach, also followed by the Congressional Budget Office down in the U.S., which has established itself as professional and non-partisan.

The thing is, it's very hard to avoid being seized, spun around and used to whack one's adversaries in the current climate in Canadian politics. It's especially hard when you're doing budget analysis given the rather obvious tendency of members of all parties to exaggerate, misrepresent and fantasize about fiscal matters and when journalists as well as politicians have not just a pervasive habit of enflaming controversies, but a material interest in doing so.

I wish I had some really good piece of advice to offer the PBO but I don't, not least because much of it is out of their hands. For instance the very first Parliamentary Budget Office study, of the costs of the Afghan conflict, was seized upon by politicians who misrepresented the findings without effective challenge from the media. But the PBO, and especially its head and public voice Kevin Page, must be very careful not to appear to quarrel with the government especially when PBO numbers do not sustain the more partisan contentions coming out of the PMO and government caucus.

Meanwhile all the rest of us who care about good governance have a responsibility to grasp what the proper role of various organizations is, to defend them when they do it well and rap their knuckles when they do not. Including, I have to say, journalists who depict everything in government as a cat fight because those are easy to cover and exciting to read about.