Costing of Election Promises: PBO Guidelines

The 2017 amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act introduced a new mandate for the parliamentary budget officer (PBO) to estimate the financial cost of election campaign proposals on request. This new mandate was criticized by the then PBO primarily on the basis that it would cause the non-partisan PBO to become involved in parties' pre-election development processes and strain limited PBO resources. However, no backing down on this commitment has taken place. Thus, with a federal election coming up in October 2019, the PBO published on November 23, 2018 some information on how this will work.

The guidelines, prepared following consultations with stakeholders, outline how the PBO will deliver its new mandate and ensure transparency in its process. The basic structure of the mandate is provided in the enacting legislation; however, the guidelines provide a framework for the costing request process and address some of the practical details that are not contained in the legislation. For example, the report sets out the request process, timelines, guidelines for the types of costs it may estimate, the PBO's resource and financial allocation, and how it will prioritize requests. It also clarifies that the PBO will not provide implementation advice or address the practical details of proposed policies. Three stated principles guide the report framework: the framework should (1) ensure that the PBO's analysis remains non-partisan, (2) ensure that the PBO's analysis remains credible, and (3) be manageable within the legislated time frame of 120 days (or the period following dissolution of Parliament).

The report also clarifies the interactions of the PBO with departments. Under the Parliament of Canada Act, ministers, departments, and agencies are required to assist the PBO in delivering the campaign costing mandate. This has been criticized as potentially creating a situation where parties may have to discuss elements of their platforms with government departments headed by a minister of an opposing party. In the report, the PBO clarified that the departments' role will be to prepare estimates if the PBO is unable to (due to confidentiality of data or lack of modelling capacity), as well as provide technical advice and peer review. The PBO emphasized its focus on maintaining its independence.

Although there will undoubtedly continue to be criticisms of the PBO costing process, and likely further refinements of the process as the new mandate gets under way, this report provides a helpful guideline for addressing the initial concerns with the mandate and provides practical details for its implementation. For further details on the PBO's new mandate, see "Role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer in Tax Policy," Canadian Tax Focus, August 2017.

Amanda Laren
Robins Appleby LLP, Toronto
[email protected]

Canadian Tax Focus
Volume 9, Number 1, February 2019
©2019, Canadian Tax Foundation