The Conservatives’ Political Calculus For Releasing the PBO’s Math

September 30, 2019

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) has a new mandate (which the Liberals mandated in 2017) to independently cost out any and all policies presented to it before Election Day, but individual parties have the discretion whether or not to release the PBO’s cost reports when they announce the policy. Therein lies an interesting political calculus for each party: why should a party choose to publicly release the PBO’s costing of its platform?  

The Conservatives are known as the party to reduce spending and cut taxes, but the party platform so far includes $9 billion of new spending, including tax credits for children enrolled in a fitness or arts program, tax credits for using public transit, a universal income tax cut, making parent benefits tax free, funds for medical equipment, and expanding RESP grants. To pay for some these pledges, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer has committed to eliminating $1.5 billion in federal corporate welfare spending, but neither the Conservatives nor any other party has given a clear answer as to how they intend to pay for their platforms.

These spending programs align with Scheer’s goal of supporting a growing middle-class and improving economic performance. Spending programs also serve to distance Scheer from Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whom Trudeau mentions in his Ontario speeches more than he does Andrew Scheer and uses as the Liberal bogeyman for spending cuts. However, Scheer’s “endless spending” had led some analysts to question the feasibility of his commitment to balance the budget within five years and “put more money in your pocket” – as the CPC Leader himself has said.

This is where the PBO comes in. By submitting policies to the PBO, Scheer is able to more credibly turn just about any policy into a pocketbook issue by having an independent agency put a concrete dollar figure on each promise, which can help make those promises appear more legitimate in the minds of voters. Take for example the Conservatives’ proposed tax credit for green home renovations: this week, Scheer announced a 20% refundable tax credit (up to $3,800) to offset energy-saving home renovation expenses between $1,000 and $20,000, and submitted this policy to the PBO for costing (the PBO determined this would cost $894,000,000 in 2020-2021). Despite the high cost, Scheer is better positioned to make these promises because formally costing them out can give voters that assurance that he will follow through on these promises if elected.

This is a very valuable outlook as Scheer compares himself to Trudeau, whom he has criticized for not following through on his “as-advertised” campaign pledges to voters in 2015.

While Scheer has promised every policy “that has dollars and cents attached to it” will go to the PBO for full costing immediately, he has criticized Trudeau for refusing to release his piecemeal PBO cost reports. Trudeau’s team has said that they will release the PBO’s math on their policies only when their full platform is released so that voters can see how each policy – and its associated cost – interrelate to each other.

Former PBO Kevin Page lauded the Conservatives for releasing the PBO’s cost reports as a way to give Canadians timely information so they can make informed decisions at the ballot box, noting “[the Conservative Party] sets a high bar for transparency and timeliness.”

While this announcement from a former head of PBO may not make many headlines, it is a significant pat-on-the-back from an independent officer that voters who are closely following the election will notice.

Releasing PBO cost reports – even piecemeal – gives credence to what may otherwise seem like lofty or pie-in-the-sky policy goals. As current PBO Yves Giroux said, bringing in an independent body to cost out a platform validates these campaign promises and gives platforms a “credibility boost.”

The Liberals have seen the consequences of not releasing PBO reports with each new spending. With every new campaign spending promise, the media question when the Liberals will release PBO costing reports and question how much this will all actually cost. As a result, these questions shape the narrative to be “policy promises aren’t real until we see the math.

As of Friday September 27, 13 of the Conservatives’ plans had been costed out and posted on the PBO website. The Greens have released 23 of their cost analyses, and the NDP have released 4. The Liberals have released none.

The advantage to holding off on releasing the PBO’s costing reports for the Liberals is that Trudeau and his team are able to modify their plans when they see how voters react to their opponents’ cost reports. Similarly, releasing a dump of PBO costs all at once – as the Liberals nebulously announced they intend to do “in the coming weeks” – also makes it harder for any one dollar figure to really stick. A piecemeal release of several PBO cost analyses, as the other major parties have been doing including the Conservatives, is more digestible for analysts and political opponents alike, giving them a single number to dissect at a given time.

To counter this, Scheer has delivered consistent messaging around the Liberals’ refusal to release PBO reports yet, saying that the Liberals have something to hide. “Obviously the Liberals have a terrible fiscal record that they are ashamed of,” he said recently. “I believe that's why they're not participating in the very process that they themselves set up.”

The Conservative Party has framed Scheer’s PBO cost analyses as a way for Canadians to hold Conservative campaign promises accountable after the election, criticizing Trudeau for “making even more promises that he won’t keep.”

Even though the Conservatives have been criticized for being too ‘spend-happy’ with their campaign promises, using the PBO to legitimize those campaign promises is an effective way to offset those criticisms, and fuels the Conservatives’ own criticisms that the Liberal Party under Trudeau cannot be trusted to follow-through on its promises.