Inside Politics

Budget watchdog 'disappointed' by Senate ruling on legal challenge

In a surprise (well, at least to some of us) ruling, Upper House Speaker Noel Kinsella has sided with Independent Senator Anne Cools, clearing the way for the Senate to order the parliamentary budget officer to drop his legal challenge against the federal government for failing to disclose data. 

The nut graf of that ruling, which you can read in full below: 

By asking the courts to decide thequestion of his mandate, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has disregarded the established authority and organizational structure of which he is a part. 

The question of his mandate is solely for Parliament to determine.

The officer's actions run contrary to the constitutional separation of powers between the branches of government. As a consequence, both the second and third criteria have been fulfilled.

Later tonight, the Senate will begin debate on a motion to refer the matter to the Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament, which would report its recommendations -- which, as Cools suggested in her initial complaint, could include a direct order to current PBO Kevin Page to withdraw his legal request for a court ruling on the extent of his mandate. 

For more background on what is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented procedural ground for the Red Chamber, read this recap of the debate so far.  As soon as I know what's likely to happen next, I'll post an update. 

UPDATE: In response to today's ruling, Page offered the following comments by email: 

I am obviously disappointed with the direction by the Senate.  

PBO is seeking a reference opinion in the federal court because a number of federal cabinet ministers indicated that I was exceeding my mandate in efforts to provide Parliament with analysis on Budget 2012 spending restraint.  

In my opinion, analysis of austerity (allocation of cuts, fiscal and service level risk) is essential work of a legislative budget office and is clearly within the legislative mandate (ie "nation's finances", "estimates of government"). 

Parliamentarians need spending plans by department and agency consistent with Budget 2012 so they can hold the government (and deputy ministers) to account. 

Without a plan there is no accountability. 

As we sit today, there are still no spending plans by departments consistent with Budget 2012. This is wrong.  

PBO is asking the federal court for clarity on the legislative mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer as outlined in the Act of Parliament. All Parliamentarians and the budget officer would benefit by this clarity. 

With this clarity we can move on to the bigger problem of raising the bar on fiscal transparency.

In the meantime, here's the full text of Kinsella's ruling:  

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