Parliamentary budget officer Jean-Denis Frechette is not Kevin Page. “I am who I am,” he says. “I’m Jean-Denis Frechette.” But the comparison will be impossible to avoid. In becoming Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer, Page not only started an institution from scratch, he became a minor—if controversial—legend in the course of pursuing financial accountability at the federal level. But whatever mark Page left, it’s Frechette’s office to define now.
Frechette was educated in economics at the Université de Montréal, and comes to the most-watched non-political job in Ottawa after toiling 27 years at the Library of Parliament (the institution from within which the PBO operates), most recently serving as the senior director of the library’s economics, resources and international affairs division.
Barely a day into his new job, one national newspaper columnist suggested Frechette had the makings of a “tame budget officer.” In an interview, Frechette says it is MPs who are the “ultimate watchdogs,” but he insists he will not shrink from saying what needs to be said. “I will not be—and I repeat, I will not be—complacent,” he says. “We have documents that in the future maybe will be controversial. There will be hard, difficult things to be said. They will be said.”
Frechette already finds himself in the middle of one difficult situation—an impasse between a request from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to study the government’s budget cuts and the reluctance of some government departments to provide the information the PBO has asked for.
Nearly a year ago, Mulcair wrote to Page to request the PBO examine the cuts outlined in the Harper government’s 2012 budget. Page took Mulcair’s request directly to the federal court to clarify if he was entitled to such information, and while Justice Sean Harrington dismissed the case on a technicality, he allowed for the possibility that, if the PBO were denied information in relation to Mulcair’s request, the PBO would have recourse to the court. Page’s interim replacement, parliamentary librarian Sonia L’Heureux, then picked up the pursuit, with little success.
Earlier this month, Mulcair wrote to Frechette, asking if the new PBO was preparing to take the matter to court. After Frechette responded that, as suggested in Justice Har- rington’s decision, he would first bring the matter to the Speakers of the House of Com- mons and Senate and the standing committee on the Library of Parliament, Mulcair wrote to formally request that Frechette proceed straight to court. Mulcair’s fear is that the Speakers or the parliamentary committee could delay or block his request.
For his part, Frechette says this is not a possibility and that he just wants to exhaust all other options before returning to court. And he suggests he will not further delay the project unnecessarily. “I will not be patient,” he said. “I will be tolerant, but I will not be patient.”