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Canada’s ‘Naive’ Budget Officer Says He Won’t Seek New Mandate

Sept. 3 (Bloomberg) -- Canada’s parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, who’s clashed with Prime Minister Stephen Harper over fiscal forecasts and said his office needs more independence, won’t seek an extension of his five-year mandate when it expires in 2013.

Page said he wants lawmakers to amend the rules that govern his office, removing it from the auspices of the Library of Parliament, the legislature’s research arm. Page also wants lawmakers, not the prime minister, to have the power to appoint and fire the budget officer.

“I don’t think it’d be right for me to say ‘This is what it needs to be,’ and then all of a sudden, I benefit by that,” Page, 52, said in an interview yesterday at Bloomberg’s office in Ottawa. “It should benefit the next person. The real beneficiaries would be Canadians, really.”

Page was appointed the country’s first parliamentary budget officer in March 2008, a position set up by Harper, 51, after he accused the previous Liberal government of underestimating tax revenue in order to generate large unanticipated surpluses. His first years have taken place in what he called a “rock-’em, sock-’em” political environment where no party holds a majority of seats in the legislature.

“I guess I was really naive when I took the job,” said Page, who shaves his head and relieves stress through jogging, hockey and punching a speed bag in his garage. “If I last for five years, that’d be great.”

‘Stone in Their Shoe’

Page has since become one of the country’s most prominent civil servants by releasing reports on government spending and budget forecasts and appearing at committee hearings. For the ruling Conservatives, Page has become “a stone in their shoe,” said Thomas Mulcair, financial issues spokesman for the opposition New Democratic Party.

“The very fact that he would decide to state in advance that he won’t be seeking another mandate, so that there wouldn’t be the slightest perception possible that he was trying to take care of his own future, is just a further indication of Kevin Page’s extraordinary class,” Mulcair said by telephone from Montreal.

Page said he’s focusing on strengthening his office along the lines of the U.S.’s Congressional Budget Office. He wants to study the spending estimates of individual departments and produce economic forecasts, as the U.S. office does, rather than rely on private-industry forecasts. However, to do so would mean “you’d have to triple” the group’s C$2.8 million ($2.65 million) annual budget, he said.

Government Response

Page has often been at odds with Harper’s government, disputing reports that the country’s budget is on track to return to balance and questioning cost estimates for the war in Afghanistan and tougher crime legislation. In March, Page said the government hasn’t been “prudent” in its budget forecasts.

His comments didn’t go unnoticed. Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty responded at the time by saying Page “is usually wrong.” Flaherty’s spokesman, Chisholm Pothier, later said Page’s views were “in the minority.”

Page has also tangled with the Library of Parliament administrators who oversee parts of his budget, saying they “don’t see eye-to-eye” on some of his human resource plans.

Harper’s spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Last month, Page’s office issued a report on the government’s C$4 billion infrastructure stimulus program that identified a “noticeable delay” in the start and end dates of planned projects.

Steak, not Sizzle

Page’s penchant for publishing controversial reports raises a risk “that flashy headlines get the attention, and the solid analysis that Canadians need” gets overlooked, said Bill Robson, president of the Toronto-based policy research group C.D. Howe Institute. “They are in the steak business, not the sizzle business.”

Page’s three decades of public service began with a stint working at the Finance Department for Munir Sheikh, who would later go on to become Canada’s Chief Statistician until resigning in July after the Harper government insisted on changing Canada’s census over his objections.

“Kevin Page has done great work in promoting fiscal transparency and accuracy,” said John McCallum, spokesman for financial issues with the main opposition Liberal Party. “It would be a shame if he were to leave.”

The need for independence is important to Page, who said his office is “hoping, politically, that we see it in platforms in the next election.” An independent budget office can give Canada and its lawmakers the transparency and solid numbers to “enrich the debate” about future budget choices.

Page said he hears from some lawmakers who “like it when we come up with the analysis and we do our homework. We provide these data points where they don’t exist and the government is not providing them.” Still, he acknowledged that his approach “rubbed a lot of parliamentarians the wrong way.”

“There’s lots of people within the bureaucracy that don’t like us,” Page said. “We’re kind of naively optimistic about survival.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Theophilos Argitis in Ottawa at targitis@bloomberg.net; Paul Badertscher in Ottawa at pbadertscher@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Wellisz at cwellisz@bloomberg.net

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