I didn’t intend to read two non-fiction books, two books about economics, consecutively. That’s just how it happened. However, Unaccountable: Truth and Lies on Parliament Hill, is about as far away as you might get from Trekonomics. The latter is speculating on what might or could be; the former is a deeply personal tale about politics and events that actually happened. Kevin Page, who shares a hometown of Thunder Bay with me, recounts his time as the inaugural Parliamentary Budget Officer and the relationship of that office with the Harper government. He does not pull punches, but he also remains classy and complimentary to politicians and public servants alike.
First, a little context for my non-Canadian friends reading this: last October, we went to the polls for our 42nd general election. The campaign leading up to it, at 11 weeks, was the longest federal election campaign in our history (I can already sense my American friends gasping in envy at this number). The stakes were high: Stephen Harper’s Conservative party was attempting to form a fourth consecutive government, and a second majority government. Instead, owing to a combination of Conservative missteps during the campaign and probably just fatigue for the Conservatives’ time in office, the Liberals swept into power, going from 34 to 184 seats. Although many people and polls predicted a Liberal minority government, the dramatic Liberal win was a surprise to many people.
Unaccountable’s title sums up the nature of Page’s story. Over his nine years as Prime Minister, Harper consolidated executive power in the Prime Minister’s Office, the PMO. His initial victory over the Liberals was largely due to backlash over the sponsorship scandal; for this reason, he ran his campaign on promises of openness, transparency, and accountability. (None of this is new: the history of our Parliament is largely the Liberals and Conservatives trading the reins of power as one or the other regime gets brought down by a scandal caused by corruption and overconfidence. Neither party is inherently right or just. Also it’s worth noting that Harper’s Conservatives are actually a parasite that has zombified the corpses of several centre-right parties, so it’s a little unfair to compare them directly to previous incarnations of the Conservatives.) Creating the PBO, which Page himself likens to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, was Harper’s way of delivering on that promise.
This is all well and good. Alas, the Conservative government did not live up to these promises (surprise, surprise). Indeed, Harper’s time in office saw the government transform into one of Canada’s most secretive, closed, and retributive governments in our history. MPs were not allowed to give interviews. Directives went out from the PMO muzzling scientists and researchers. The government deliberately hobbled the census, because who needs statistics? And even as they claimed to be fiscally responsible, the government refused to produce reliable data to back up their claims.
Unaccountable is basically Page recounting all the times he called bullshit on the government’s numbers (or, more often, lack thereof) and then got told off, loudly and rudely, for, as he puts it, doing his job. From the first report his office produced—forecasting the long-term costs of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan—to the F-35 forecasts, the PBO came under fire from the government for exceeding its mandate and attempting to work with the opposition parties. Ironically, many of the emotionally-charged responses from the government to these reports were contributing factors to the two elections and two prorogations of Parliament that we experienced prior to 2015. Meanwhile, Page and his office just kept chugging along, hoping that by keeping the media on their side and sticking to what they did best—research and reporting—they would stay intact, if not exactly popular with the administration.
Although Page’s narration is quite focused, necessarily, on his actions and the actions of his team and the effects they had on the government, I wouldn’t say he’s trying to be remembered as a crusader against the Harper government, nor is he stroking ego. Rather, he simply is very passionate about and invested in the idea of an impartial and accountable civil service. He wants people to be inspired not just by himself but by the process and passion of him and his colleagues at the PBO. He is looking back on his five years as PBO and reflecting that he has done good, and it comes across that way. Moreover, he’s trying to drum up the excitement level and present these events in an interesting way. There is a reason for that.
This is an important book. Discussions of the civil service are not sexy. Canadians have a poor enough understanding of how our political system works as it is; I doubt most Canadians would be able to tell you what the PBO is or where it fits into our system (to be fair, I had no idea it had been shoved into the Library of Parliament org chart until I read this book). When a friend of mine asked me what this book is about, she responded that her attitude towards politics in one of “blissful ignorance.” This is coming from an intelligent and educated person. And it’s exactly the kind of response that allows people like Harper to strong-arm the government in a direction that isn’t good for our country.
Apathy is the enemy of a healthy democracy. Parliament governs through the will of the people. It exists to keep the executive in check. But if the people don’t care, then Parliament is de-fanged. And while our MPs are the heart and soul of Parliament, the untold legion of civil servants who run their offices and departments are its life-blood. They are the ones who draft our laws, vet our budgets, and prepare communiques. Without them, government would grind to a halt. And their integrity is paramount: they guard against ideology trumping reality. (Yeah, I used trumping there for a reason.)
Let’s be clear: this isn’t a left wing/right wing, Liberal versus Conservative thing. Page is critical of the Conservative government’s conduct when it comes to releasing data. He very carefully does not comment on the ideology behind the Conservatives’ policies, though, just their fiscal responsibility. And this is key, both to understanding Unaccountable as well as our politics. It is not the Conservatives’ ideology that is the issue here: rather, it’s the fact that they refused to provide the methodology and data used to arrive at their budgeting forecasts, and they consistently claimed that their policies would cost far less than they would in reality. This is not surprising; no government wants to look bad by saying they’re going to spend a ton of money. And that’s exactly what the PBO did by consistently releasing reports second-guessing what few numbers the Conservatives announced. Oopsie.
Replacing the Conservatives with a Liberal government is not a panacea. Page and his publisher very deliberately timed the release of this book to coincide with the upcoming election. It’s clear he hoped to make an impact, at least among the probably nerdy Canadians who were going to pick up this book in time for it to influence their vote. But ousting Harper doesn’t automatically fix anything—remember, when he was Leader of the Official Opposition, he was quite happy to go on about transparency, only to swiftly change tune when he became PM. And indeed, there are some warning signs that the Liberals are being recalcitrant about their numbers as well. I’d say I’m shocked, but….
Unless the government actually gives the PBO the power to compel the release of government data, there is little the PBO can do except make noise. Ultimately, it’s we—the ones who put the Liberals into government—who have the power. That’s why you should read the book. Yes, it is about economics and spending and politics. But it is not full of jargon. Indeed, Page provides succinct and clear descriptions of how the PBO did its research and produced its reports. Although I had been aware of Page and the PBO’s existence during his tenure there, I didn’t really understand how it operated. Now I know more!
Unaccountable is not a tell-all full of gossip on Parliament Hill. It’s the unsexy but still quite dramatic story of a guy trying to do his job so that we can stay informed. At times he gets personal, recounting a bit of biography and sharing the story of his son’s death and how that influenced his decision to apply for this job. Your mileage may vary for these details. What I can’t shake is how none of this civil service stuff gets taught in schools. Our civic education is laughably perfunctory—we’ve been lucky, coasting off the fact that Canada’s traditionally high immigrant ratio means we get so many talented people coming into our country and caring greatly about the political process because it’s what got them here in the first place, often from places where they have less of a voice. Those of us who have grown up here, in privileged families who, by dint of economic and ethnic status, are not often the target of government policy changes, except for the better (Harper’s “old stock” Canadians if you will) forget how good we have it. And we seldom learn about the essential role that public servants play in keeping it that way.
So, here’s my assignment to the class: read this. It is not a long book. It is 200 pages. It is not a superbly written book, but it isn’t hard to read either. I suspect for most of us, though, it will fill in unexpected gaps in our knowledge.
Democracy for the individual can be thought of as comprising two questions: What do I want this country to be? and Is the current government making it so? Only you can answer the first question. Neither Unaccountable nor I are out to shame you for being Liberal or Conservative, NDP or Green, Bloc or anything else: you do you. In order to answer that second question, however, you need unbiased and detailed data—not so you can put on your economist hat and analyze it yourself, but so third parties whom you trust can look at it. The PBO and similar civil servants work to get you that data, and as Kevin Page recounts here, it is not always an easy task or one for which they are rewarded. The least we can do is pay a little more attention.