MLI’s Philip Cross comments in the Financial Post on the questionable actions taken and pre-emptive criticism given by former Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page. Cross begs the question: Does Page have an ethical blind spot?
Kevin Page’s ethical blind spot
Philip Cross, Special to the Financial Post| 13/07/29 |
In retrospect, it is obvious that Page began sowing the seeds for the destruction of the PBO even before he left the job
In an earlier column on Kevin Page, the head of the Parliamentary Budget Office, I was misinterpreted by some as calling for closing the PBO. While critical of Page’s partisan and adversarial style, I did not question the existence of the PBO itself.
However, after the announcement late last week that the University of Ottawa was creating a new institute to house Page as a fiscal watchdog, which he would staff with current PBO members, I think the time may be near to shutter the PBO. Seeing eminently-qualified candidates for the PBO hastily withdraw their application, when faced with the prospect of a shadow PBO across town siphoning-off the senior staff, may simply be too much for this fledging office to overcome. The blame squarely lies on a carefully-planned campaign by Page and senior PBO staff to “bomb the bridges” behind their retreat to university and irrelevance.
In retrospect, it is obvious that Page began sowing the seeds for the destruction of the PBO even before he left the job in March. He criticized the government for not letting him hand-pick his own successor and then for delaying the search process. He criticized the appointment of the head of the Library of Parliament as interim head of the PBO. He criticized the testing process to staff his replacement, saying it was designed to find someone “who will be submissive to intimidation.” He criticized the integrity of those who applied, apparently not aware of the surprisingly high quality of people interested in repairing an office his own actions had undermined. He criticized the qualifications of people overseeing the selection, saying the “process has failed miserably and dangerously” even before the result was revealed. He criticized the actions of his successor before there is one, saying his new institute was needed to continue the analysis the PBO once performed. The torrent of pre-emptive criticisms reveals an ‘Apres moi, le deluge’ ego that would embarrass a French monarch.
Contrast this behaviour with how a civil servant of high integrity hands over his office to a successor. When my former boss Munir Sheikh resigned as Chief Statistician of Canada, he pointedly wrote that he would never question or criticize the actions of his successor. He knew that establishing yourself as head of any organization is hard enough, without endless sniping from your predecessor.
The pattern is now obvious. Page was going to denigrate everything and everyone related to the process of finding a new head of the PBO no matter what. This was necessary to justify his new institute, but at a terrible cost to his credibility, the life-blood of anyone claiming to be an independent watchdog. If he was so ready to pre-judge the PBO selection process irrespective of the facts, who will believe his pronouncements in the future?
That Page cannot see the conflict of interest in undermining the PBO selection process while promoting his own parallel institute at the University of Ottawa suggests he has an ethical blind-spot that rivals former Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney’s (whose dalliance with people in the Liberal party wanting him to run for the leadership, while serving as head of the Government’s most visible agency, was mind-boggling). If someone in business deliberately undermined their succession so he and some former colleagues could personally profit, they would be under investigation by regulators and pilloried in the court of public opinion. In Ottawa, there is only a sigh of relief from the opposition and the press corps, who will continue to have a steady stream of inflammatory quotes from Page.
The launch of this institute for fiscal oversight allows Allan Rock, the president of the University of Ottawa and one-time candidate for the Liberal leadership, to realize a life-long dream of heading an opposition party. This redoubt of disgruntled former federal civil servants promises to behave like a political party, gainsaying whatever position the government takes. Not exactly the open-minded pursuit of inquiry that universities are supposed to embody.
The sad part of all this is that things did not have to happen this way. Recently, Graham Fraser had his term extended as Official Language Commissioner, despite taking on the government over issues ranging from cuts to federal minority rights programs to appointing unilingual Anglophones to high offices. What was the difference between Fraser and Page? As one commentator noted, “Fraser excels in diplomacy” and “brings dignity to the post.” Dignified and diplomatic are not words you hear associated with Professor Page.
Philip Cross is the former Chief Economic Analyst at Statistics Canada