Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Book of Numbers - In Conversation with Kevin Page

This past Wednesday night’s Writers Festival event was about as Ottawa-ish as you get. Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page sat down with CBC’s Alan Neal to discuss his book, his old job, and the state of Canada’s institutions.


Centretown United Church was nearly full, with people spilling over into the balcony seats. And while this might be encouraging for those of us concerned with voter apathy and growing civic disengagement, I couldn’t help but notice the sea of white hair. It is well and good that seniors are engaged citizens, but the fact that young people are largely uninterested in such an event supports Page’s larger concerns about the state of the country and its government.


Page’s concerns centre around the state of Canada’s institutions and the government’s culture of fear. His book – Unaccountable – speaks to these issues and Page’s role as the country’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO). The PBO was established in 2006 to provide independent financial analysis to Parliament. Page was the first head of the office, serving in the position from 2008 to 2013.


While the book is clearly quite timely in its release (hint – there’s an election soon, and you can make sure you’re registered to vote), Page is the first to admit that an election won’t fix the issues. No government wants to be transparent and accountable, so it is up to the electorate to demand it.


There is reason for cynicism, however. Page’s most famous hour came in 2011 when he uncovered that the true cost of the Conservative government’s proposed F-35 purchase was billions of dollars higher than they were telling the public. An election was called, largely because of this very issue, and Canadians handed the Conservatives a larger mandate by giving Harper a majority. Canadians may talk about wanting government transparency and accountability, but we do not seem to demand it from our leaders.


In a now infamous 2012 interview, CBC’s Julie Van Dusen asked Page if the government was purposefully misleading the public. Initially, Page dodged the question as good economists and bureaucrats often do. But Van Dusen – who was in the audience and brought up on the stage by Alan Neal – asked again, sensing that he was the kind of person “that would have a hard time fudging.” Page said that at that moment he no longer cared. Very bluntly, and much to the embarrassment of the government, Page answered “yes."


Always a thorn in the side of the government, Page was derided by those in the highest positions of power. This, however, proved his worth as PBO. No government appreciates those who hold it to account, which is probably why the PBO is understaffed and underfunded. Page noted that he “signed in blood” to build the PBO to be transparent, analytical, and open. He did what he could; however, the government – who campaigned in 2006 on transparency – is now doing what it can to be as secretive as possible.


Despite Page largely preaching to the choir, Wednesday’s event was informative and motivating for everyone in attendance. He kept an optimistic, personal, and even humorous tone given the cynical nature of the topic. He spoke candidly about the loss of his son and constantly brought up the great work done by his colleagues in the PBO. He is a public servant to the core – wanting only what is best for the country. While he has harsh words for the state of the country’s institutions, one cannot help but feel optimistic going forward. If there are people like Kevin Page working to better the country, maybe the future could be bright after all.