Hounds of Parliament: As commuting cyclist and budget watchdog, Frechette must make his presence known

Jean-Denis Frechette
Jean-Denis Frechette is pictured in a photo released on Nov. 21, 2013. HANDOUT/PBO

This project began with profiling each officer of Parliament in an eight-part series. It’s now expanded to include other federal watchdogs who, even though they are not officers of Parliament, have a vital role to play in holding the government accountable. Read the introduction and series via the links. 

Jean-Denis Frechette is a different person on his bike.

In his office, where he pursues federal economic transparency, the parliamentary budget officer wants to be known as “kind of smooth” and “a nice person.”

But on rides across the river to Ottawa from his home in Gatineau, Que., it’s another story.

“You have to defend yourself … a car is much bigger than you and you cannot fight a car,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m not really aggressive and I don’t yell at people, but … I know how to make my presence [known]. I know that they know I’m there.”
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Frechette calls himself an optimist. But he acknowledges he struggles daily to access the data he needs to do his job — holding the government’s feet to the fire through analyzing spending and informing debate in both the political and public spheres.

It’s a struggle that also bedevilled Frechette’s predecessor, inaugural budget watchdog Kevin Page.

Frechette drew a line distinguishing his personality as a cyclist and as the parliamentary budget officer.

But surely there’s a parallel between the assertive man he is on a bike, making his way among motorists, and in the role of PBO, navigating partisan politics to gain access to data.

On both a bike and as a budget officer, Frechette admitted, “you have to be defensive.” He paused, then offered a saying in Latin: Si vis pacem, para bellum.

If you want peace, prepare for war.

“It’s true for getting the information [from government]. It’s true to ride in traffic … on your bicycle. I want peace. I don’t want to be in war. But you have to be ready.”
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‘I like parliamentarians’

When Frechette took over from Page, he inherited an office the Conservatives did not appear to appreciate even though they’d created it; one whose budget they slashed, only to reinstate it when Page threatened to shutter the office. Senior cabinet ministers described the PBO’s work as unbelievable and unreliable.

The office, however, also earned a reputation among the public for shining a light on the darker corners of federal spending, including the costs of the F-45 fighter jet program and of the war in Afghanistan.

But Frechette, a bespectacled Quebecer with a full head of thick, grey hair, said none of that specifically drew him to the job.

“I’ve been working for the legislative branch of Parliament for 28 years now,” he said. “Very early in my career I know that I would like to finish my career working for parliamentarians. I like parliamentarians.”

He likes the contributions MPs and senators make to democracy, he said. And he likes knowing his work can help inform public policy.

“When I saw the first mandate, I was a big fan of the PBO,” he said. “I really enjoyed looking at what this office was doing.”

READ MORE: Frechette draws a line, saying, ‘I’m not Mr. Page’

Then came the opportunity to apply for the office’s top position.

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So he applied, and was appointed. And that’s when the criticism began.

Everybody who weighed in on his appointment agreed he was a good person, an experienced and capable public servant. But where was his experience costing and preparing budgets? He had none.

Critics accused the government of using the appointment to dilute the office after five years of Page’s scrutiny.

No matter, Frechette said. He is but one person in an office of 15, and he brings experience from the legislative branch the office may otherwise lack.

“Right on the first day of the job here, I said, ‘This is a team approach,’” he said, recalling his critics’ expectation he’d clean out the office and start from scratch.

He didn’t go that far, but he has made organizational changes: He decided to have only one assistant officer instead of two; that assistant officer, Mostafa Askari, decides what to study and who works on what projects. Askari is also expected to take over annual employee reviews.

Frechette, meanwhile, continues to sign off on projects and reports, speak with media, attend meetings with the Library of Parliament, the body through which the PBO reports, and maintains hiring and firing privileges.

A ‘constant, day-to-day fight’ for data

Along with Page’s reputation and track record, Frechette also inherited his predecessor’s attempt to figure out exactly what the Conservatives cut in their austere 2012 budget.

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The government stonewalled Page’s office on the matter, accusing him of overstepping his mandate.

So he went to court.

Although the case was dismissed on a technicality, Federal Court Justice Sean Harrington’s ruling suggested the government can’t use its majority to deny the watchdog information, paving the way for another attempt by the parliamentary budget officer to take the government to court over budget information.

Since taking over the file, Frechette has hesitated to bring the government back to court, seeking instead to exhaust all other options before resorting to what could be a costly and lengthy legal process.

READ MORE: Jean-Denis Frechette named new budget officer, Page warns ‘difficult job’

So far, he has spoken with the parliamentary librarian. He has raised the matter with the speakers of the House of Commons and Senate. He has taken the issue to committee. No results.

Frechette said has one more option to he wants to try — establishing data-sharing agreements with federal departments — before taking Ottawa back to court.

That struggle is but one example of what Frechette said is a “constant, day-to-day fight” for data.

“The bread and butter of this office is data,” he said. “If we don’t have data, we cannot do the work. That’s basically the bottom line.”

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In the fall of 2012, Liberal Senator Percy Downe asked the PBO to examine the effect of overseas tax evasion on the government’s finances. The office asked the Canadian Revenue Agency for an estimate of the overall tax gap – the difference between the amount of taxes Ottawa collects versus the amount owed.

But the CRA wouldn’t provide an estimate of the tax gap — or even any data the PBO could use to calculate the gap on its own.

READ MORE: Budget watchdog ‘one step’ from taking government to court

Many countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, both routinely produce estimates of their tax gaps.

And it’s more than an academic exercise: It could reveal Ottawa has more revenue than anticipated, prompting a second look at austerity measures.

This was another struggle Frechette inherited; one he said he hopes can be resolved peacefully.

So the CRA is becoming the guinea pig in Frechette’s bid to develop data-sharing agreements, or memorandums of understanding (MOU), with federal departments.

Once a final MOU is hammered out with the revenue agency, he said, he’s hoping he can use it as a benchmark and precedent for other departments.

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“Eventually, you develop a protocol, you develop an approach,” he said.

There’s no real telling how long that process may take, and how long the government will have before the PBO can analyze either the 2012 cuts or the tax gap.

A toothless watchdog?

Ultimately, what Frechette’s office lacks is teeth, he said.

When the Conservatives first took power in 2006, ending an era of Liberal governments felled by the sponsorship scandal, the very first piece of legislation the new government penned was the Federal Accountability Act.

It changed the framework for political donations, imposed a five-year cooling off period for ministers and many senior federal employees turned would-be lobbyists and created, among other accountability offices, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

That office, which eventually got off the ground in early 2008, would ostensibly help with the Conservatives’ stated priority of enhancing transparency and accountability in federal spending.

But while the PBO can request information from government departments, it has no recourse when departments refuse, a hurdle that has plagued the office since its inception.

“There’s no real mechanism that requires or forces a department to provide the information,” Frechette said. “It’s something that will have to be developed in future years, future mandates of PBOs.”

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While his job may seem an exercise in futility, Frechette said he won’t give up on any requests he receives, or even the years-old queries on tax gaps and budget cuts.

“Never pull the plug,” he said. “Whether or not we can do the analysis, eventually it serves the purpose of developing this approach for the PBO to have access and defend its right to have access to data.”

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