The case of the Parliamentary Budget Officer again locking horns with the federal government because of a request for information is symptomatic of a broader problem. The PBO is giving the government until the fall to release additional details of planned budget cuts or will take them to court. Naturally, in Ottawa’s current budgetary siege mentality, the reluctance of a majority of government departments/organizations to provide information (apparently only 18 out of 82 have complied) in response to a request by the PBO is bureaucratic self-interest. After all, any criticism of the government is viewed as an attack and the source of the information itself can become a retaliatory target. In an era of budget cuts, civil servants are becoming super cautious.
The focus of this issue has become the tug of war between the PBO and the Conservative government. This is wrong as the PBO is pursuing its mandate. This would not be the case if there was an effective political opposition in Ottawa but the state of the Liberals and the NDP as political opposition is so poor that the current federal government now sees bureaucrats, professional expertise and the media as the opposition and responds accordingly. In many respects, the PBO has been let down by the public and particularly the opposition whose ineffectiveness has allowed the PBO to take most of the heat for its budgetary analyses. In essence, the messenger has become the message and the issue rather than the analysis provided. A more able opposition would have been out there getting the legal opinions and threatening to take the government to court thereby preempting the PBO.
Despite vocal statements of commitment to open government and debate, politicians usually only like such debate when in opposition. Indeed, the idea of an independent public budget watchdog with free and timely access to government budgetary and financial data was created by the Conservatives in their early days when they still very much had an opposition mentality. It is an amazing example of time inconsistent behaviour. Once entrenched in office, from the lowliest municipal councilor to the mightiest cabinet minister, politicians do not like to be criticized. While the Liberals and the NDP may publically applaud the PBO, even they perhaps realize that down the road roles may be reversed.
Yet, politicians have chosen a vocation where criticism is constant and one should expect them to have thicker skins. Deep down they all seem relatively insecure and thin-skinned and expert opinion - unless it is of the cheer leading variety - is often resented. Anyone who knows more than a politician makes them "look bad" and unfortunately in today's knowledge based economy, that is a lot of people.
The solution? The fuel for criticism is information. Reduce the numbers and statistics and the ammunition for criticism is gone. Without evidence, criticism is no longer informed analysis but merely speculation. That levels the playing field between politicians and their critics. The result is a gutting of information infrastructure as in the case of Statistics Canada and the census. This is not a recent phenomenon. Have we forgotten the end of the Ontario Economic Council or the Economic Council of Canada? Is it a surprise?
For many politicians, their concept of “public debate” occurs in the scripted public consultations they stage. My personal favorite is the Ontario Far North Act where in response to continued criticism by First Nations and the northern Ontario business community, the Ontario Natural Resources minister responded with an op-ed in the Thunder Bay paper that essentially stated that the act was being misunderstood and needed better explanation upon which the same government points were reiterated. Obviously some politicians believe debate means saying the same thing over and over until people give up.
Do we give up and continue this imperial phase of Canadian government that has been decades in the making? Has government in Canada simply become a case of “Rome has spoken, the case is closed”? Is there not an irony that the government emphasis on documenting accountability and transparency throughout the broader public sector is increasingly accompanied by less and less access to effective information? Yet, how do we have evidence-based decision making without evidence and without the cut and thrust of real policy debate? Politicians have lost sight of the fact that their positions are to make decisions as representatives of the public and not as ruling overlords. Politicians have chosen an up front public role and yet often take public policy criticism on an initimate and very personal level. To be fair, politicians have a tough job and the public scrutiny is merciliess. Nevertheless, politicians should understand that in the absence of good information, evidence and analysis, all you are left with is personalities and even more personality-based politics, which can make politicians both look and behave even worse.