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Harper and Mulcair debate Federal Court decision on Parliamentary Budget Officer

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The parry and thrust of the House of Commons can sometimes get a bit Monty Python-ish.

Just think of these scenes from that British absurdist-satiric TV show.

A man goes into a pet shop with a cold stiff bird and says: "This is a dead parrot!"

The shopkeeper replies: "No, he is not. He is just sleeping."

A long, absurd contretemps ensues.

Or, there was this one.

A customer approaches the "Argument Booth" in a midway (sort of like the old "Kissing Booth"), and pays his money.

"I would like an argument," the customer says.

"No, you wouldn't," says the man in the booth.

"Yes, I would!"

"No you wouldn't"

"That's not an argument it's just a contradiction!"

"No, it isn't."

And then the booth closes. The customer has run out of time and has to put in more money (which, oddly, he does!)

Two ways of reading a Federal Court decision

Politics, too, can be theatre of the absurd, with members on opposite sides speaking, literally, past each other.

During Wednesday's question period there was one matter on which all agreed: the need to respond vigorously to the Rehtaeh Parsons tragedy.

Ms. Parson's parents were in Ottawa on Wednesday and, before Question Period, met with both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader. Whenever someone spoke about this heart rending situation during Question Period there were standing ovations from all sides.

For the rest -- except for a relatively non-partisan exchange between the Liberals' Bob Rae and the Prime Minister about the fact that Sri Lanka's current human rights abusing government will host the next Commonwealth Conference -- Opposition and Government members seemed to be on different planets.

Earlier this week, the Federal Court issued an odd, and seemingly contradictory, decision on the case the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) brought against the Government.

The PBO was seeking information on the full impact of the Government's announced budget cuts, information the Government had refused to voluntarily hand over.

The PBO sought that information in response to a request from an MP -- in this case NDP leader Tom Mulcair.

The opening line of the Court decision gives the impression that the PBO and Mulcair had suffered a clear defeat.

It says, bluntly: the "Federal Court dismisses the application."

There is more to it than that, of course -- a lot more.

But that opening line was all Prime Minister Harper needed on Wednesday.

When Mulcair asked Harper, if, in light of the full Court decision (more on that soon), the Prime Minister would now instruct his Ministers to provide the Parliamentary Budget Officer with full and comprehensive information on budget cuts, Harper had an easy riposte.

"I am very happy," he said, "that the Court has ruled against this partisan action taken by Mr. Mulcair and the former Parliamentary Budget Officer."

Mulcair replied that he and the Prime Minister must have read different decisions, and pointed to the actual detailed reasoning of the Court's ruling.

The Federal Court supported the right of MPs to information

Reading the whole document, one does see that the Court did not, in fact, support any of the Government's arguments.

It only ruled against the PBO and Mulcair because it deemed that the whole matter was, to use the Court's jargon, "non-justiciable."

The Court said the PBO had not provided any specific case of the Government's refusal to share any particular information, so it could not oblige the Government to do anything.

On the underlying principle, however, the Court agreed with the PBO.

It agreed that the Parliamentary Budget Officer has the right to a broad class of information and the right to go to court if the Government balks when asked to supply it.

The Court also agreed that individual members of all parties -- and not merely the governing party -- have the right to trigger a PBO request for information.

The Harper-appointed Interim PBO, Sonia L'Heureux, the Librarian of Parliament, is turning out to be no pushover.

She issued a news release after the Court decision that takes exactly the same view as the Opposition:

"In its decision," L'Herueux said, "The Federal Court has said that the ... mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) includes estimating the financial cost of any proposal ... when requested to do so by a member of the Senate or House of Commons."

And then she pretty much threw the gauntlet at Harper's feet:

"In light of the Court's decision," she said, "The PBO intends to request the information required in order to respond to the request from Mr. Thomas Mulcair, MP. We expect that the requested information will be duly provided by the government departments and agencies."

If the government continues to balk, L'Heureux pledged she would go back to the Federal Court -- and, this time, the request for information will have been clearly and precisely framed in such a way that it cannot be deemed "non-justiciable."

But we never got that far in Question Period on Wednesday.

We'll see what happens when L'Heureux actually calls on Deputy Ministers and Agency Heads and asks them for the same sort of information they refused to share with the recently departed PBO, Kevin Page.

As this unfolds, the NDP is supporting a Bill that would create a truly independent PBO.

Kevin Page used to say that, legally, he served "at the pleasure" of the Prime Minister, and he believed that was wrong.

"I should serve at the pleasure of nobody," he used to say.

The Government might be surprised to discover that Sonia L'Heureux does not see herself as serving at anyone's pleasure either.

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