MJ ENTRY: PBO, a watchdog still leashed

Article originally appeared in the Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication student publication Close-Up November 21, 2015

 Mostafa Askari is the assistant parliamentary budget officer. He says the PBO is a watchdog on government spending and budgetary matters. © David Deen

Mostafa Askari is the assistant parliamentary budget officer. He says the PBO is a watchdog on government spending and budgetary matters. © David Deen

On a cold November evening in Ottawa, while most of the city’s public servants have already hurried home, Mostafa Askari is heading to his sixth media interview.

Askari is assistant parliamentary budget officer. His office provides economic and budgetary analysis to Canada’s Parliament. On Nov. 10, the Parliamentary Budget Office released its Economic and Fiscal Outlook and the forecast isn’t good: the first blow to the new Liberal government.

It is uncertain whether such reports will again strain relations between the PBO and the government.

Fiscal Watchdog

"The government is more careful in how they do things because they know that we are here and we are watching them." —Mostafa Askari, assistant parliamentary budget officer.

“The government is more careful in how they do things, said Askari, 66, “because they know that we are here, and we are watching them.” An economist by training, Askari has been with the PBO since its creation. The Iranian-born, American and Canadian educated Askari describes his office as a watchdog on government spending and budgetary matters.

Most Canadians are watching the new government, but Askari and the PBO might have the closest look.

Honeymoon Over

The budget office’s report of an impending deficit is a sobering end to coverage of the young Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s win and diverse Cabinet.

Scrutiny begins now on the $35-billion in additional spending promised by the Liberals, adding to the expected deficits revealed in the latest PBO report.

“They do have a challenge, no doubt,” Askari said. “A challenge in making sure that their commitments fit within the fiscal profile that they want to present to Canadians as something reasonable.”

An Unclear Role

Reports like these were a source of conflict with the previous government. It is unclear whether that will continue. Much of the uncertainty begins with PBO’s position within the Library of Parliament, subject to its oversight and budget allocation, accountable to the Government House Leader in the House of Commons.

Askari said independence from the Library of Parliament is critical.

“If the person is in place and is afraid of being fired everyday, then that person will not be able to do his or her job.” Mostafa Askari, assistant parliamentary budget officer.

Askari said that if the parliamentary budget officer “is afraid of being fired everyday, then that person will not be able to do his or her job.”

According to Askari, there is an unspoken agreement that the Library of Parliament does not interfere with the work of the PBO. But for him, it isn’t enough.

The Liberal party promised in their platform to “make sure that the office is properly funded, and accountable only – and directly – to Parliament, not the government of the day.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Dominic LeBlanc was equally as vague, directing him to ensure the PBO is “properly funded and truly independent of government.”

Askari says the language from the Liberals on the PBO is unclear and vague.

Contentious Beginnings

“The Conservatives wanted an office with less teeth,” said Kevin Page, the first parliamentary budget officer, who held the post from 2008­–13.

The office was formed in 2006. Page had many conflicts with former prime minister Stephen Harper, whom he accused of misleading Canadians about costs of the controversial F-35 fighter jet program and an expensive crime bill.

According to Page, the contention began in 2008.

“From the first couple of reports, the government realized that we were going to produce work that was authoritative,” Page said. “And maybe we had numbers that were different than they were putting out and we were going to be more transparent than the government was prepared to be.”

“I wouldn’t take the job unless I knew he would come.” —Kevin Page, former parliamentary budget officer

Kevin Page, former parliamentary budget officer. © David Deen

Page was the one who urged Askari to join the PBO in the first place, drawing on his experience as senior chief of economic analysis at the Department of Finance and a director general at Health Canada. Their decades-long relationship began at Queens University, where Page, a master’s student, marked papers for Askari, who was pursuing his doctorate.

I wouldn’t take the job unless I knew he would come,” Page said. “I would never make a decision without talking to Mr. Askari. I love the son of a bitch, I really do. I have enormous respect for the guy.”

Page said that the appointment of current PBO, Jean-Denis Fréchette, was an appointment of someone without the proper experience and was meant to undermine the office. Still, Page is optimistic of the PBO’s future, one he sees Askari should lead.

“It would be great if the executive moves forward with legislation to strengthen the PBO,” said Page. “Dr. Askari would be a great first officer of parliament, parliamentary budget officer.”

Mostafa Askari is the assistant parliamentary budget officer (PBO), an office he says is a watchdog on government spending and budgetary matters. © David Deen

Watchdog without Leash

Getting that forum to make their case to be a fully independent officer of Parliament will be vital to the PBO’s future. In the face of growing deficits, it is unclear whether the government will maintain the status quo or give the PBO more room to be a watchdog with the resources it believes necessary.

“When I look at the things that have happened since we were established, the kind of work that we have done, and the reaction that we have gotten from the government, I think the difference we are making is that the government is more conscious of some of these issues because we are putting out these reports,” Askari said. “I think we have had a gradual impact on the way the system is functioning.”