Has Parliament been thrown under the omnibus? Debate pits Page against students

It’s not often a single sheet of paper can fluster a bureaucrat. But Kevin Page faced this very strange scenario in March 2011 when, as Parliamentary Budget Officer (pbo), he released a report claiming that the government’s proposal to buy 65 F-35 fighter jets would come in at nearly twice the projected costs.

Page spoke Wednesday at Hart House about his experiences working in the Harper government, as part of Hart House’s annual Churchill Debate.

“We went to the Feds to ask for information on costing the F-35. They told us, ‘We’ve got a really complicated model, you wouldn’t get it,’” Page said. “So we said okay, we’ll go to the Americans. No one knows more about fighter jets than the Americans!”

Meanwhile, the Department of National Defence released its estimates for the F-35 purchase in a report Page characterized as a ‘single sheet of paper’ that lacked both a model for its estimates and peer revision.

“The government had figures like $16 billion and we had $30 billion. We had members of the media ask us how our estimates were so far apart — well, I can’t reconcile what we had with one sheet of paper!”

Page’s visit to Hart House comes near the end of his tumultuous five-year term as Canada’s first pbo, appointed by Prime Minister Harper to provide independent analysis of Canada’s finances and the state of the economy.

Page was not the only person at the debate to voice displeasure at the Harper government’s secretive nature.

This year’s debate featured the resolution: “This House believes that Parliament has been thrown under the Omnibus,” in reference to the Harper government’s string of omnibus budget bills. Sean Husband and Tina Zhu spoke in favour of the resolution, with Vinny Goswami and Kristin Pew opposed.

“How can members represent their constituents in various areas when they are forced to vote in a bloc on such legislation of such concerns?” began Husband. “We can agree on some measures but oppose others. How do we express our views and the views of our constituents, which are diverse?

“Those are, of course, the words of Stephen Harper speaking in 1994.”

Husband and Zhu vigorously attacked the omnibus format, arguing that it both forces Members of Parliament to choose between party interests and the needs of their constituents, and leads to less government transparency as smaller items in omnibus bills rarely receive attention.

Goswami and Pew offered reasoned rebuttals to the claims, suggesting both that omnibus bills offer increased legislative efficiency and bring more media attention to the proposed laws.

“The nature of certain bills necessitate an omnibus bill — look at the budget, for example,” Pew said. “You may disagree with certain allocations of funding, but it makes sense it’s put into the same area, given the finite legislative schedule.”

Following the debate, Page gave a speech about his life and career as a federal public servant. Page came out strongly against the Harper government’s policy of opacity.

While Page allowed that “Omnibus legislation can be a good way of passing bills, if you’ve got a bill on the environment for example,” he nevertheless said the omnibus format should be reserved for “a handful of acts, but hopefully not a lot.”

During a question period after his talk, Page offered words of advice to those disaffected by the current political climate.

“What would change the situation? Engagement,” Page said. “We need to get people out there engaged more.”

“If you are fed up with omnibus bills, or parliamentary decorum, make your voice heard. When do we engage? If not now, when?”

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