March 21, 2013 5:55 am
Updated: March 24, 2013 3:58 pm

Kevin Page: the accidental crusader

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OTTAWA – Kevin Page sits by the window in a downtown Ottawa food court, eating his fiscally-prudent $11.50 lunch, when a man – a stranger – slowly approaches.

“You’ve done a good job, Mr. Page,” says the man, extending his hand.

It’s the last week on the job for one of the country’s most famous public servants – no small feat in a town where anonymity is the status quo.

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His powerful reports on issues of the day – from Afghanistan, to F-35 fighter jets and ship procurement, to Old Age Security – drew attention to an office Page believes was never supposed to get any.

After five years, the inaugural Parliamentary Budget Officer, whose job was to provide independent analysis to Parliament, is moving on. To what, he doesn’t yet know.

“You have this routine for way too long and now it’s just – you’re breaking apart. No longer a public servant.” It is also a job that has gotten Page, 55, into trouble since being appointed by the Conservatives in 2008. The Tories have since accused him and his work of overstepping his mandate, of partisanship, and in the words of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, of being “unbelievable, unreliable and incredible.”

In between bites of carrot squash soup and a Thai chicken wrap at the Ottawa institution known as Soup Guy, where he has dined thrice weekly for the past five years, Page is unfazed.

“I don’t feel like I have any knives in my back, I have no chips on my shoulder,” he said. “I don’t think I’m walking away with any scar tissue.”

And in true Page style, he is going out the same way he came in – not exactly quietly.

He released his final report Wednesday on rising criminal justice spending, and will be in federal court on Thursday and Friday. As a legacy to his office, he will be asking the court to clarify his mandate in order to get departments to release information about budget cuts after many refused.

And despite having no stake in it professionally, he looks forward to analyzing Thursday’s budget strategy – “I find it fascinating” – to see if the Conservative government will stay the course in terms of spending and how it plans to grow the economy.

He finds himself at once looking back, and worrying about the future.

“There’s a nice high of a positive feeling related to the work, and the team,” he said. “There’s still uncertainty around the office that feels more negative.”

The last few months have gotten somewhat ugly for Page, a soft-spoken, reflective presence in a red checkered shirt and blue paisley tie.

He has, through it all, learned something about the nature of power.

“I think the Conservative government would be very strong supporters of the office, the way we operate our office, if they were in opposition,” said Page. “That could be the same for other parties as well. It’s not a partisan point that I make. If say the Liberals or the NDP were to create this office… would they still want it when in power?”

Most of all, Page assures he never set out to be political. Even if it sometimes seemed that way.

“We’ve never seen ourselves as doing political work. Politicians, they have to make these trade-offs. Do we send people to war? What kind of educational system do we provide for aboriginal kids? Do we buy fighter planes with stealth or not? These are the big, tough issues,” he said.

“We just put numbers on stuff.”

***

It all changed on Friday, September 9, 2006.

Page’s son Tyler, studying heritage stone masonry at Algonquin College’s Perth, Ont. campus, called to tell him he wouldn’t be back in Ottawa that night.

He was going out with his friends for drinks. It was Friday night after all.

It was the last conversation Page ever had with his son.

“He was walking along the tracks on the way home and he fell, bumped his head and he got run over by a freight train,” said Page. “My son unfortunately made a serious mistake that night and paid for it with his life.”’

Page got the call at 2 a.m.: “It was all over.”

A year-and-a-half later, Page was offered the PBO – appointed by the prime minister, at the pleasure of the prime minister, meaning he can be fired at any time – and remembered thinking he didn’t want it. “

Why would anybody want to be the Parliamentary Budget Officer?” asked Page, a 27-year career public servant.

“The model’s really set up to provide analysis that could challenge the government.”

Nobody wanted the job before him.

“It wasn’t set up for success. It was career suicide. It would be like, ok, I’m offering up my last five years of public service,” he said. “It was one of those things where, if you did the job really well, you’re going to be in trouble, and if you did the job really poorly you’re going to be in trouble. And nobody knew what the middle ground was.”

But following the loss of his son, with his wife and two children’s grief on his shoulders, Page decided he needed something different.

“I was working at the Privy Council Office at the time. You can’t really do those jobs when your family is unwinding,” he said. “A couple of my friends said, if you go Kevin, we’ll go with you, and that was enough for me to say, ok, we’ll give it a shot.”

He said losing his son gave him a greater sense about what life was about.

“You don’t really worry about your job anymore. Honestly, if you feel like you’re doing the best you can, that’s enough,” he said. “I’d rather get fired for doing the right thing.”

It doesn’t mean he never felt fear. Page knew the work had to sustain himself and his 15-person office, that there couldn’t be a misstep, there couldn’t be a messy report.

“I worry about being incompetent. What if we do crappy work? We all have those things inside us,” he said. “Not providing a contribution, I would fear that. Not being useful.”

He likens his five years in office to walking a tightrope.

“Maybe even just survival is kind of an accomplishment.”

***

Page remembers the moment, outside the public accounts committee, when he was asked if the government was being misleading on the cost of the F-35 fighter jets.

In his 2011 report on the jets, Page estimated the cost to be in the $30 billion range, not the $15 billion estimated by the government.

An Auditor General’s report released the following year, estimating the costs at $25 billion, said the Defence Department had excluded operating costs. (While a KPMG report later pitted the lifetime estimate at $45 billion for 65 fighter jets.)

Page was asked outside the committee by reporters if the government withheld information.

In a move some saw as political, Page said yes.

“To me, that’s white and black in a sense. That was misleading. They went out of their way to mislead,” he said.

“We asked for specific information, we knew exactly what we were asking for, they didn’t provide it.”

He doesn’t regret what he said that day about the F-35s.

“I’d have to say it again if someone asked me the same way. Is it really possible that somehow they were confused about what we had asked them? No. There’s zero possibility.”

His one regret is not having been able to strengthen the office further, to provide more transparency, more analysis, more culture change in a city that has become increasingly secretive.

“It would have been nice to have had – within five years – to have done such a great body of work, that Parliament in general would say, we need to protect this office,” he said.

“I obviously didn’t achieve that.”

Page said he faced resistance not only from the political arm but the public service too, who didn’t want him questioning their numbers. “We’ve dealt with a lot of pressure from the bureaucracy as well,” he said.

“For the most part, we just held our ground.”

He said most of all, the way Parliament gets information about the laws it passes has to change.

“Eventually some people are going to have to start standing up. It’s going to happen sooner or later. Maybe the PBO, we’re just the…first responders, just trying to say, we can do this way better.”

It is a message he has championed, and one it appears he will continue to follow.

During lunch, Page finds a wallet on the ground beside the table.

He keeps looking at it, and, at the end of the interview walks over to the food counter.

And like a good Parliamentary Budget Officer, he gives it back.

© 2013 Shaw Media

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