Go the web site of Parliamentary Budget Office (the PBO) and you will see a series of odd looking links in the "Recent News" section.
The links are all entitled IR0080 – XXX Extension. For the XXX fill in the acronym for any of a number of federal government department or agencies, such as RCMP.
Click any of these links and you get a letter from Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer himself, to a Deputy Minister or head of an agency.
In each letter Page tells his interlocutor that he is "happy to hear from officials that you are currently working toward satisfying our request for information..."
The Budget Officer then goes on to tell the senior bureaucrat that he is "willing to extend the deadline for providing that information to October 19."
No fanfare, do drama.
Just a series of innocuous sounding letters.
But there is story behind them, and the story is that this Conservative government blinked.
The PBO tells it like it is
Page has been seeking information from the government for months now, information that it has refused to share, citing a variety of excuses.
The Parliamentary Budget Office, as NDP finance critic Peggy Nash explained to reporters on Wednesday last, was created in the wake of the sponsorship scandal as a means to keep all members of Parliament informed of how the government is spending taxpayers' money, on an ongoing basis.
It was the PBO that alerted Parliament and the Canadian people to cost overruns in the planned purchase of F-35 fighter jets.
In February of this year, the PBO also released an analysis of the projected cost, over the next 70-odd years, of benefits to the elderly. It concluded that those costs would rise for a number of years relative to GDP, then fall back very close to current levels (slightly less than 15 per cent of total federal program spending).
In other words, there would be no pressing fiscal necessity to raise the eligible age for Old Age Security (and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for the poor) from 65 to 67.
The government did not back down on its plan to raise the eligible age, but MPs and voters at least have some solid, non-partisan economic analysis with which to judge that plan.
It is a bit technical, but that report does make interesting reading.
Here it is:
What will be the impact of cuts?
More recently, Kevin Page has sought detailed information from all government departments and agencies on how they plan to go about implementing the current round of spending cuts.
Page argues that his mandate is to provide analysis, on an ongoing basis, of the impacts of government fiscal policy and he needs the information he seeks to do that job.
Some smaller agencies immediately complied with Page's requests for information. But, by and large, the government stonewalled.
As recently as last month there was a revealing exchange of letters between Page and the man who is, in effect, the chief operating officer of the federal government, the Clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters.
Page wrote the Clerk on September 5 and the Clerk replied almost two weeks later.
In his letter, Page starts out by expressing regret that the Clerk's schedule has not allowed for a face-to-face meeting.
He then reminds Wouters that his Budget Office is still awaiting information on "planned savings, planned personnel reductions, and service level impacts."
Page says he needs that information because "the uncertainties in the achievement of public sector efficiencies pose risks to the realization of budgetary targets at the departmental and aggregate fiscal level."
In other words, the government says it will achieve savings -- through a number of different means, including "change management" and "staff reductions" -- but those savings "may prove elusive and contain unforeseen costs in implementation."
Page concludes that he needs this information in order to "provide Parliament with an independent analysis of the current state of affairs."
The Act does not give unlimited power to the PBO, says the government
Wouters response is a fairly unequivocal 'no way.'
The Clerk tells Page that in the Government's view the Act that created the Parliamentary Budget Office "does not confer upon the PBO a mandate to review all of the operations of the Government."
The clerk then goes on to say that, in any case, the Government has provided Page all kinds of information of the sort he requests. He reminds the Budget Officer that he, Wouters, personally gave Page a comprehensive summary account of planned efficiencies by department.
In addition, Wouters points out, there are the departmental quarterly financial reports to Parliament, which now include a Budget 2012 implementation section. You can get the information you need from those, the Clerk tells the PBO, while enumerating other ways in which the government has made information available -- including answers to written questions from Members of Parliament.
'Concern' for government workers as well as the limits of Page's mandate
One argument that Wouters does not make, but which some Conservative ministers did trot out, was that the government had to discuss planned staff reductions with unions before making them public. The unions, on the other hand, have been clear that they have no objection to the PBO doing its job. They welcome it, in fact!
As recently as Saturday, October 6, the President of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, went even further than Wouters and said that analyzing government cuts was not within the mandate of Page and his office.
The PBO's job, Clement argued on CBC Radio's The House, is to look at what government plans to spend, not what government plans not to spend!
Then, mere days later -- whiplash, a big change of heart.
The Government seemed to cave in as department after department and agency after agency went humbly to Page and asked for a few more days grace in order to fulfill his request.
Well, Page had, months ago, sought legal advice and that advice was that what he needed to know was entirely within his purview according to the Act. That did not seem to move the Conservatives, at the time.
Then Page called the Government's bluff and announced that if he did not receive the information he needed by the end of this past week, he would take the various departments and agencies to court. In each case, the Deputy Minister or head of agency would be the person on the hook.
As the NDP's Nash sees it, that seemed to do the trick.
The Government was being disingenuous all along, Nash says, especially in its argument that what Page was doing was really the Auditor General’s job.
"The Auditor General looks at programs and spending after the fact," Nash says, "The PBO needs to look at what's going on as it happens. The roles are different."
And so a crisis has been averted, for now.
Given his history of disinterested candour it will be very interesting to see what sort of analysis Page provides of the 2012 budget's austerity plans.
Peggy Nash is not satisfied, though, and is now calling for a fully independent Parliamentary Budget Officer, on the model of the Auditor General.
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.