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Hill Dispatches: Parliamentary Budget Officer - Conservative government breaking its own law

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The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) was created by an act of Parliament in 2006, as part of the Harper Conservatives' signature Federal Accountability Act.

It now seems like a vague story from a long distant past, but openness, accountability and respect for Parliament were what the Conservatives ran on back then, six years ago.

Creating an independent budget office that would report to Parliament - not to the government of the day - was a Conservative idea in 2006.

Now the PBO, Kevin Page, wants access to key financial information in order to do his job, and the government is blocking him.

Page needs to know how the government is going about implementing the public service cuts announced in the current budget. That information will allow the PBO to evaluate the effectiveness of the government's fiscal policy - and that is the essence of Page's role, as defined by legislation. 

When Page asked the federal Deputy Ministers and other heads of departments and agencies for the necessary information, a few complied; but most demurred. Then, the PBO received a note from the federal government's chief civil servant, the Clerk of the Privy Council, saying that the government was unable to provide the details he requested.

The Clerk told the PBO that the government would provide information to affected employees and their unions, and provided the PBO with summary, but not specific or detailed, information on planned cuts.

Legal advice: no exceptions

The Budget Officer's position is that the law does not provide exceptions to the government's obligation to give him essential and basic financial information.

Page sought independent legal advice on this matter from Joseph Magnet of the University of Ottawa and Tolga R. Yalkin, the PBO's own counsel and also on the University of Ottawa's faculty.

The two lawyers analyzed all possible exceptions to the law obliging department heads to cough up their information to the PBO - including privacy concerns and the laws concerning Access to Information - and found none. 

Their conclusion: "As the information the PBO requested constitutes financial or economic data, necessary for carrying out the PBO's mandate, and is neither personal information, the disclosure of which is restricted by the Access to Information Agency, nor information contained within a Cabinet confidence, the deputy heads are required to comply with the PBO's request."

Still, the government will not budge. 

When asked about this flouting of a law the Conservatives themselves introduced government ministers mvirtually ignored the question, as in this exchange between Opposition Leader Mulcair and government spokesperson, Foreign Minister Baird:

Mulcair: The Parliamentary Budget Officer has told the Prime Minister's office that they are breaking the law by refusing to hand over information to Parliament. Now the PBO's legal counsel, among the most respected in Canada, have told the Prime Minister the same thing... Why is the Prime Minister breaking his government's own accountability law?

Baird: This government will continue to report to Parliament through the means that have been used for many years. This includes the estimates, the supplementary estimates, quarterly reports and the public accounts. Based on our current collective bargaining arrangements with our employees, we are working with the departments to inform unions and employees of any affected changes. We think we owe it to tell them first before they learn about it on television.

Mulcair: Mr. Speaker, they are breaking the law.

Baird: We had unprecedented debate about budget 2012 in the House and committee. We sat for more than a full day, 24 hours, discussing, debating and voting on the bill just last week...

Mulcair: The law is crystal clear. The Federal Accountability Act requires that members of Parliament be given ‘free and timely access to any financial or economic data in the possession of the department.' That is the law. Financial and economic data sounds like the sort of thing that Conservative members might like to see themselves before they vote on the budget. Why is the Prime Minister showing his own MPs such blatant disrespect?

Baird: It is this government which held unprecedented consultations in preparing budget 2012. It is a plan for long-term economic growth and prosperity. It has low taxes, balances the budget and those are absolutely key and essential to creating a good economic climate.

Boiler-plate and evasion

It is hard to miss the fact that in his answers in the House Baird never comes close to addressing the questions about the PBO's legal opinion.

The Minister resorts to boiler-plate about how many votes there were on the budget, how good the budget will be for the Canadian economy and how much the government consulted in crafting the budget.

The only reason Baird gives for not sharing information with the PBO is the need to inform public servants and employees on cuts, first - an argument that the PBO's legal opinion clearly refutes. There is nothing in the statue, says the legal opinion, that creates that sort of exception for the government.

Again, it is the PBO's main job to connect government fiscal policies to real world results, in order to evaluate the effectiveness of those policies. Page cannot do his job if the government does not tell him precisely what financial and economic plans are.

And this is not just a theoretical question.

The Budget Officer's raison d'être is to provide all Members of Parliament, on both sides of the House, with independent information they require in order to make informed decisions.

As the NDP's Finance Critic Peggy Nash put it: "It makes no sense for parliamentarians to have to vote on this budget without knowing what the cuts mean, and without having access to the information that would tell us what is being cut. By law, the Parliamentary Budget Officer - and therefore parliamentarians - are entitled to this information."

It was Bob Rae who best captured the essence of the government's bob-and-weave communications strategy in the House: "If you look at the robo answers that we got today, the words  'Parliamentary Budget Officer' were never spoken by the government ministers... Every time you mention the words Parliamentary Budget Officer, all you get is derisory laughter from the government members.  And when the government ministers answer, they never once mention those words... They'll talk about committees, but they won't talk about the fact that we have a Parliamentary Budget Officer . . .They do not want him to be able to do his job."

And so now the only way for Kevin Page to get the government to give him the information he needs, and which the law says it is required to give, would be to go to court.

There has been no announcement, yet, on that. Stay tuned.

 

Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.

 

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