Budget watchdog operating 'outside' mandate

Treasury Board President Tony Clement has accused the parliamentary budget officer of operating 'outside' his mandate. In an interiew with Evan Solomon on CBC Radio's The House, Clement said the government is prepared to make that case before the courts.

Government ready to take matter to court, Tony Clement says

Treasury Board President Tony Clement is the minister responsible for cutting $5.2 billion in government departments over the next three years. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The minister responsible for cutting $5.2 billion out of the federal government's operating budget over the next three years is accusing the federal budget watchdog of operating "outside" his mandate and is prepared to make that very case before the courts, if need be.

That's because Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer (PBO), has given federal officials in 56 departments until Oct. 10 to submit the information his office has been requesting with respect to the savings and reduction measures contained in this year's federal budget or risk legal action.

In an interview that aired on CBC Radio's The House, Tony Clement, the Treasury Board president, told host Evan Solomon "I'm making the argument that [Page] is outside his mandate."

"There's lots of work for him to do inside his mandate and he should stick to that."

The PBO has been after federal departments to turn over the information his office has requested since April, but Clement said Page's job is to look at what the federal government is spending money on, not to examine what it's not spending money on.

According to Clement, Page "is fixated with on something entirely outside his mandate."

The minister said his advice to Page is to "spend your time doing your job rather than spending time on things that are not part of your job."

Page has an official mandate to "provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation's finances, the government's estimates and trends in the Canadian economy."

But according to Clement, the budget watchdog is "misinterpreting his mandate."

"When you look at the words in his mandate — the finances, the estimates and the trends in the national economy — it's not about money not spent, it's about money spent," Clement said.

When asked whether he was prepared to defend his position in court, Clement said "yes, we are."

The minister said there are a number of ways the federal government remains accountable to Parliament.

"We're doing that through estimates, quarterly departmental reports, public accounts. There's a whole alphabet soup of different reports that we send to Parliament on a timely basis," Clement said.

Page will not seek a second term

This is not the first time the federal government has accused Page of overstepping his bounds.

In June, during an exchange in question period, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said "with great respect, I believe that from time to time and on occasion, the parliamentary budget officer has overstepped [his] mandate."

Baird's comments came the day after Page released a legal opinion that supported his view that he is entitled to receive all financial and economic data the departments have, as long as that information is not protected for privacy reasons or matters of cabinet confidence.

The federal government has also criticized Page for the estimated costs he gave for the proposed purchase of the F-35 fighter jet, an estimate that was later confirmed by a report from Auditor General Michael Ferguson.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty also criticized the spending watchdog after Page said Old Age Security was sustainable, effectively contradicting the federal government's assessment of that program.

Page was appointed as the first parliamentary budget officer by Prime Minister Stephen Harper for a five-year term, which ends at the end of this year.

While Page has told CBC News he will not seek a second mandate, the question remains whether the federal government will appoint a successor or do away with the position altogether.