PBO, government showdown looms

The parliamentary budget officer has set the end of business today as the final deadline for when delinquent government departments can report detailed information to his office about how cuts announced in last March's budget will affect them.

Kevin Page threatens court action to gain information about cuts

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page wants information about cuts to several large government departments that are seemingly reluctant to convey the information. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The parliamentary budget officer set the end of business hours today as the final deadline for delinquent government departments to report detailed information to his office about how cuts announced in last March's budget will affect them.

Only about half of the departments have sent information to Kevin Page, including one that arrived on Friday.

The PBO had said it was prepared to work through the weekend if the information it is seeking is delivered. But as of 5:00 pm Friday the office said it had received "only one information package from a small federal organization."

The deadline for the tardy departments has been extended once already. However, Page made it clear Friday that if departments don't co-operate, he's prepared to take the issue to Federal Court to attempt to force them to comply.

The federal government is indicating it might fight back. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told CBC's Power & Politics program on Friday that Page has exceeded his mandate.

"He's asking for information about money that's not spent, which is a very odd thing for the parliamentary budget officer to ask", Flaherty said. "His mandate is to review government spending, not to review spending that was reduced."

Treasury Board President Tony Clement has said much the same thing, a week earlier. When asked, Flaherty said it "wouldn't be wrong" to say that the government is prepared to defend its position in court. 

The PBO's mandate is the top item on its home page.

"The mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation's finances, the government's estimates and trends in the Canadian economy; and upon request from a committee or parliamentarian, to estimate the financial cost of any proposal for matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction."

Comments 'nonsensical'

Liberal Leader Bob Rae said Friday he thought Flaherty's and Clement's comments were "nonsensical."

"It's sort of like saying the parliamentary budget officer can look at spending, but he can't look at any area where we're spending less," Rae said. "If you're spending less, you're still spending so the argument holds no water."

If the government ends up in court seeking to withhold the information "they'll be laughed out in two seconds," Rae said.

Scott Clark, a former deputy finance minister, said that if  "some departments and agencies are agreed to do it, and some are not, it's not a strong case to go to court on," adding that parliamentarians were forced to vote on the main estimates in June without knowing what departments are going to spend.

"Why would [the government] not give that information?" Clark said. "What is it that they don't want us to know? This is a government that prides itself on its ability to cut spending, yet they're unwilling to tell us what it is they're actually doing."

Last March's budget announced $5.1 billion in government cuts by 2015, along with an estimated loss of 19,200 jobs. The details about how each government department will be hit won't be revealed until spring.

Some MPs, including NDP finance critic Peggy Nash, have complained that it's extremely difficult to vote on a budget when details aren't known about how significant cuts will affect government services and programs. Nash has introduced a private member's bill that would make the Parliamentary Budget Office independent, as the Office of the Auditor General is.

Information available online

Conservative MP James Rajotte, chair of the finance committee, said Friday the information Page is seeking is available online, and every Canadian can see it.

Liberal finance critic John McCallum said it's "ridiculous to argue, as Tony Clement has, that the parliamentary budget officer can look at expenditure levels, but not cuts. You have to know the cuts to know the levels."

The PBO has released a chart about which departments have handed over information or confirmed their intention to do so.

Forty-three deparments comprising 52 per cent of the total have indicated they will comply, while 20 departments have not responded to the PBO request. These include: the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Privy Council Office, Treasury Board, Citizenship and Immigration, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Justice and Environment Canada.

This isn't the first time Kevin Page has clashed with the government that appointed him. He questioned the validity of the government's estimates of the cost for new F-35 fighter jets and contradicted the government's statement that Old Age Security was unsustainable.

The government created the PBO as part of Accountability Act in the wake of the sponsorship scandal.

"The PBO is an important agency", Flaherty said. "We created it — the Conservative government — and it can be very useful. Unfortunately he [Page] has not used it as well as he could."

Page refused comment on Friday, but has told the CBC previously that he is not going to seek another mandate when his term expires in March.