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International community watching Canada's PBO battle with interest, says Page

OTTAWA – Some international observers have expressed shock at the difficulties Canada’s parliamentary budget office has had prying information from the government, says the departing Kevin Page.

Independent budget officials from 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development are holding their two-day annual meeting for the first time in Canada, where they are sharing best practices and experiences in a fast-growing field.

Observers from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are also on hand.

The sessions, closed to the media at the behest of the OECD, cover everything from “budget oversight under minority (and coalition) governments” to the benefits of long-term, 50-year fiscal projections.

But a session on accessing government information Thursday afternoon cut to the heart of debates over Canada’s fledgling parliamentary budget office.

Page, appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is about to end his five-year term as Canada’s first PBO and is currently taking the Conservative government to court over its refusal to release information on billions of dollars in departmental spending cuts from last year’s federal budget.

“‘You’re kidding me, you can’t do that in any other country,'” Page, the chairman of this year’s meeting, said he was told by some counterparts from abroad. “They’re shocked.”

Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States all gave presentations on accessing information.

“Our experience has been rougher, and there are people talking about it now as we speak,” Page said.

The Congressional Budget Office in Washington reported that it has a relationship developed over decades with mid-level government officials that freely share government data, while the Office for Budget Responsibility in the U.K. reported it has been “positively surprised” by its access demands.

Page said the international community is watching the Canadian experience with interest.

“People know, they’ve seen from a distance that we’ve struggled a little bit,” he said.

And if anyone in the meeting room missed the message, they were sure to get an earful at dinner Thursday evening: Pat Martin, the NDP firebrand and chairman of the House of Commons government operations and estimates committee, was the scheduled guest speaker.

“It’s frustrating and ironic that in the ‘age of information’, there has developed an increasingly elaborate and almost paranoid game of cat and mouse to keep important information from the prying eyes of the public,” Martin said in a copy of his speech provided to The Canadian Press.

“In fact, it’s been my experience in this country that the amount of crowing about commitment to transparency and accountability has been directly proportional to the increased devotion to secrecy, deliberate obfuscation, and the hoarding of information for no defensible reason.”

Oddly enough, the PBO’s self-described “rougher” ride appears to have bolstered the Canadian office’s international credibility.

Page now sits on a five-person advisory panel building an office for the Slovak Republic, and in April he’ll be in South Africa with the IMF to look over that country’s budget office.

“Get started right, get good strong legislation, talk about the importance of transparency, create a competitive culture around analysis,” Page said as he rattled off a list of best practices for fledgling offices.

And the international community is listening.

Rick Stapenhurst, a McGill University professor, was at the meeting representing the World Bank Institute and said developing countries are eager to adopt budget offices of their own.

“There’s a huge demand from developing countries,” Stapenhurst said in an interview.

McGill University will play host to the inaugural meeting for developing country budget offices April 22-24 in Montreal.

“They see there’s a need for this kind of independent budget analysis and advice and support for parliamentary scrutiny of the budget,” said Stapenhurst. “But where do they draw experience from?”

The meeting ends Friday afternoon with Page moderating a session on newly revised “Principles for Independent Financial Institutions” and a report by the OECD Secretariat.