Trudeau not acting in 'good faith' on PBO platform costing, economist says

Justin Trudeau's Liberals have "gamed" a process the party itself created to increase the transparency of fiscal promises during elections, an economist says.

In their 2015 platform, the Liberals pledged to expand the mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) to include the estimated costs of various campaign commitments. They said at the time it "would help Canadians make informed decisions" and give voters a "credible, non-partisan way to compare each party's fiscal plans."

The proposal was enshrined in legislation after the Liberals formed government, making the current election campaign the first under the PBO's expanded mandate.

Unlike the Tories and New Democrats, however, the Liberals have so far neglected to release PBO estimates for the nearly $4 billion worth of campaign promises they've made to date.

While Trudeau said Wednesday that his campaign will release a fully-costed platform, along with the PBO's analysis of big ticket items, "in the coming weeks," some are asking whether the Liberals are flouting the spirit of a process they created.

"The NDP and the Conservatives came to the table to engage in good faith, and I think a lot of people had assumed the Liberals would do the same," said Rob Gillezeau, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Victoria, who once worked in the office of former NDP leader Tom Mulcair. 

"Good faith" matters because the parties' participation in the process is voluntary. And the PBO can only release a cost estimate of a particular promise with written permission from the party that requested it.

Other parties left 'burned'

That means that if Trudeau's campaign has received results from the PBO, it has decided to sit on them until a later date.

The PBO's guidelines do not expressly state that cost estimates need to be released alongside announcements, but Gillezeau said that was widely understood to be the practice when the policy was developed.

"I think the fact that one of the major parties decided to play politics with it has been really damaging," said Gillezeau.

According to the Liberal campaign, many of the measures it intends to roll out are interrelated. A series of individual cost estimates would fail to capture the bigger picture of its fiscal plan, a party spokesperson said.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer argued that the Liberals are trying to limit scrutiny of their "terrible fiscal record."

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Gillezeau said the Liberals' decision to make platform announcements without accompanying cost estimates has undermined the transparency the new PBO process was meant to foster.

"For the other parties that took a chance and engaged, they are probably feeling a little burned," he said.

Tactical campaign decision

Mostafa Askari, chief economist at the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, said that the Liberal approach is "frustrating" for the public — but there's still plenty of time left in the campaign for financial transparency.

"The spirit of the legislation is that all of the party's fiscal measures should be costed by the PBO. When to release them — that's a different issue," said Askari, who served as deputy PBO for nearly a decade until he left the role in 2018.

"The parties have their own strategies and tactics for releasing this kind of information."

Waiting to publish cost estimates means more time to modify proposals or react to what rival parties have rolled out on the trail, he added.

The move to expand the PBO mandate to include analysis of election promises was not applauded by everyone when it was first floated. Ken Boessenkool, a long-time Conservative staffer at both the federal and provincial levels, was among the critics.

Boessenkool, who calls himself an "early and persistent" opponent of broadening the purview of the PBO to include elections, said that parties themselves should bear the responsibility for credibly costing their platforms. He was behind the Ontario Progressive Conservatives' decision to have one of their recent platforms independently analyzed by Kevin Page, Canada's former PBO.

"It was a signal to the public that the party was serious," said Boessenkool, currently a partner at KTG Public Affairs.

A non-partisan government institution like the PBO should have no role in campaigns, which are inherently partisan exercises, he said.

The current politicking over the PBO's cost estimates for Liberal promises seems to be validating those concerns, Gillezeau said.