Inside Politics

Senator says budget watchdog could be ordered to drop legal challenge

Undaunted, it seems, by the virtually unprecedented level of sceptical public scrutiny currently aimed at the Red Chamber, perennially independent Senator Anne Cools is calling on her colleagues to issue an unprecedented rebuke against Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page by ordering him to cease and desist his ongoing legal action against the federal government.

In her opening statement, Cools cited a Toronto Star opinion piece penned by PIPSC president Gary Corbett, who, in a lengthy paean that deemed Page a "national hero," suggested the watchdog had "been attacked with an intensity usually reserved for environmentalists."

Her real ire, however, appeared to have been sparked by the Ottawa Citizen's account of Page's recent participation in an OECD-hosted meeting with his international counterparts," which quotes Page as saying "some international observers have expressed shock at the difficulties he has had in prying information from the government," and also makes reference to his ongoing legal challenge, in which he is seeking to have the courts confirm the extent of his mandate.

"Honourable senators," Cools told her colleagues, "the actions and claims of this Library officer, now reaching beyond our borders and into the international arena and Canada's foreign relations therein, are breaches of the privileges of the Senate and of senators."

In fact, as far as Cools is concerned, Page's actions "are so shocking" that the Senate may have to consider ordering him to "withdraw his frivolous and vexatious application to the Federal Court of Canada."

You can peruse the senator's full argument -- in which she accuses Page of laying claim to "constitutional powers" unavailable to other Library officers, or even Chamber officers, and points out that he didn't even bother consulting with the House or Senate speakers before launching his application for judicial review -- here.

After Cools had finished making her case, two Liberal senators -- Joan Fraser and Grant Mitchell -- were quick to come to Page's defence, at least as far as the specific charge levelled against him by their colleague.

Fraser disputed the claim on procedural grounds -- under the Senate rules, potential breaches must be brought to the attention of the Chamber 'at the earliest possible opportunity,' and what's more, it isn't at all clear that a "speech given in Ottawa to an international group" has in any way infringed upon the rights and privilege of the Senate or individual senators.

Mitchell, however, went further, noting that he had initially expected Cools' point of privilege would be in support of the parliamentary budget officer, and specifically, the "barriers ... the government has put up ... on his ability to do the job."

"To the extent that he needs to get information to do that job," Mitchell argued, the legislation itself "outlines ... that he has the right to get that information," and although Page may have sought the assistance of Parliament, he, personally, is "quite happy that he is prepared to go to court to fight for what is his mandate within his legislation."

After both sides had spoken, the speaker interrupted proceedings to point to the clock, and suggest that the debate be wrapped up for the night, with the possibility of returning to it the following day.

In any case, I'll keep you posted on what, if anything, comes of the challenge. Stay tuned!

Oh, and finally, credit where credit is due -- I am indebted to Ontario South Coast Senator Doug Finley for alerting the twitterverse to what is already a fascinating debate. 

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