By Les Wittington, Toronto Star, October 21, 2012
The parliamentary budget watchdog is going to court to force all federal government departments to supply him with information on how spending cuts will impact services and programs for Canadians.
Kevin Page achieved a breakthrough in his longstanding feud with the Conservative government about disclosing budget details in recent days when a majority of federal departments agreed to submit the information.
Of 82 government agencies and departments, 60 have said they will comply with the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s request for more information on how they are implementing the spending reductions in the March 29 budget.
But Page said Sunday he will follow through with his plan to go to Federal Court if need be to force the deputy ministers of all departments or agencies to comply.
“I can confirm to you that the Parliamentary Budget Office will be filing and serving legal notice on all non-compliant deputy heads (of departments) early this week,” Page said in a statement Sunday. “As it is now clear that this matter will constitute the subject of a legal action, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.”
The 2012 budget called for federal spending reductions of $5 billion annually and the elimination of 19,200 federal government jobs over several years. Page, who is mandated to keep MPs informed on fiscal and budgetary matters, says he needs details on the impact of the cuts on programs and services so MPs can make informed choices when they vet budget legislation.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government says information on the impact of the budget is being rolled out through the normal process of spending reports and estimates of government financial needs that are presented to MPs over the course of the year. But Page says this process is too slow, leaving MPs in a position of voting on budget implementation bills without full knowledge of what the budget changes mean for Canadians.
He won a victory in his standoff with the government earlier this month when Wayne Wouters, the deputy minister who heads Harper’s government department, conceded that other deputy ministers could decide independently whether or not to comply with Page’s information request.
One of the departments that has refused to send more information to the Parliamentary Budget Office is the finance department.
Asked about this Sunday, Flaherty said Page is going beyond his official duties.
“He wants to look at money that’s not being spent rather than the manner in which money is being spent, which is actually his mandate as the Parliamentary Budget Officer,” Flaherty told CTV.
Page has dismissed this argument, saying it makes no sense to say he can look at some government fiscal issues but not others.
There is a back-story rumbling through the offices of various government departments in Ottawa, a story that has not yet grabbed the front pages.
It concerns the potential defiant refusal of Deputy Ministers, clearly under the direction of the PMO, to sit on budgetary information that would demonstrate where and how and when each ministry will make the cuts to their budgets.
The Minister of Public Works, the infamous Tony Clement, he who paved the streets with lavish squalor in the Parry Sound -Muskoka riding, prior to the G8-G20 Conference, has told the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, to "butt out" from attempting to get the information about "austerity," and stick to the details on "stimulus".
Page, appearing on CTV's Question Period, told Kevin Newman that he believes the request for details, for example, of how the Department of Agriculture will cut $56 million from its budget is relevant, both to the Members of Parliament who, with those figures can better assess risk to the public, for instance on the current contaminated "beef scare," and can pursue more detailed questions of the government in the House of Commons.
When asked, Page indicated his PBO is prepared to seek legal clarification of the mandate of the PBO, through a court action against the government and its Deputy Ministers, for refusing to provide the details of its austerity program.
Think of this! A Parliamentary Budget Office and Officer taking the government to court just to be able to do its mandated job! It's unheard of! It's also reprehensible!
No government, and no politician, is prepared to come clean on how and where it makes cuts, unless pushed to the brink. They will generate uber-advertising campaigns to announce and trumpet anything that looks like "stimulus." Just look at the advertising budget of the government's stimulus package, so grandiose that the comedic pundits on 22 minutes have taken "jobs" in acting so they could cash in on the program, the advertising budget created more jobs than any retraining could, in their view.
Review, also, the gallons of ink and the arsenal of electronic digits thrown at the avoidance of the topic of "where Romney will make cuts" (by Romney) in the American presidential race. The Republic candidate must be taking his marching orders from Clement, Harper and gang. Or is it the other way round?
Should taxpayer money have to be spent taking the federal government to court, in order to ensure that the Parliamentary Budget Office (and Officer) can do their job, there ought to be a public outcry against the need for such an action.
However, there is a legitimate question as to whether such "abstractions" as the legal wording of the PBO's mandate is the stuff of headlines and the grist for the talking heads of political punditry.
Harper, Romney, Clement and their ilk are quite aware of the public's distaste for anything smacking of 'substance' in the political debate. Witness the rush to judgement of Obama on "style, body language and even laziness" (accuser, John Sunnunu) and their pronouncements of a Romney 'win' this past Wednesday night in Denver, in the prize fight that is otherwise known as the Presidential campaign of 2012.
While Kevin Page has indicated that some Deputy Ministers have called to ask what information the PBO actually wants, after each of the fifty-six Deputy Ministers received a letter formally asking for details that Clement was attempting to stone-wall, this little tempest-in-a-tea-pot could escalate into another embarrassment for the Harper government. And there is no doubt about the side the public will take:they will support the PBO!
However, the skirmish is enough to signal that politics of openness, of accountability and public disclosure...the kind promised by Harper, is the last kind of government he and his gang are willing to deliver.