Friday, November 23, 2012

Canada’s parliamentary budget watchdog has turned to the Federal Court to resolve the long-simmering debate over his office’s mandate and its power to seek information on spending cuts from federal departments.

 Canada’s parliamentary budget watchdog has turned to the Federal Court to resolve the long-simmering debate over his office’s mandate and its power to seek information on spending cuts from federal departments.

It’s the latest twist in Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page’s tug-of-war with the Conservative government over getting access to details of the $5.2 billion in spending reductions unveiled in the 2012 budget, including the impact on jobs and the level of services to Canadians.

Instead of suing the government, the PBO filed a reference application that asks the Federal Court to clarify whether it has the jurisdiction to undertake an analysis of the budget reductions sought by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, including whether Page is entitled for the information on the cuts it has been asking for since April. In the application, Page named Mulcair as a respondent.

The application, filed in court Wednesday, is a very different tactic in Page’s seven-month quest to get information on the cuts to better inform Parliament of the government’s spending plans, which some say could offer a cleaner and speedier resolution of the impasse.

Page first negotiated with the Privy Council Office for the information, and then for months threatened to take the government to court to force departments to comply with his request and turn over details on the spending cuts.

He had run out of time for the second option, though, since under the Federal Court Act, Page had to file a claim for judicial review within 30 days of the Oct. 19 deadline he set for departments to turn over the information. He also sought various legal opinions about the scope of his office, when it was created in 2008, and more recently on his mandate and power to request information.

Page’s decision to file a reference application deftly gets around the legal wrangling of taking the government to court for an order that forces the release of the information. Also, the application could have the effect of forcing the government to turn over the information if the court decides the analysis falls within Page’s mandate and that he has the right to demand financial details of the cuts from departments.

Politically, it would also look bad for the government to refuse the information if the court decided Page has the right to it.

The government, however, could object to the application and argue that it is not appropriate for the court to get involved, which could send the message that the Conservatives would prefer that Page’s role remain in limbo and his mandate unclear.

The decision to go to court was triggered on November 8 when Mulcair asked Page in a letter to assess whether the budget reductions are “achievable” and to estimate the impact they could have on Canadians.

Page responded that he was hampered by the confusion over his mandate. The Conservatives have argued he overstepped his real mandate, which they say is to examine the money government spends, not what it doesn’t spend. Page said Mulcair’s request also demanded details on the staffing cuts by program.

Mulcair replied that Page should receive the information and provide an analysis to the House of Commons and the Senate.

Last week, Page told Mulcair he would ask the court whether he has the jurisdiction to do the analysis and to clarify whether he has the right to ask departments on staff cuts by program.

“If the court decides that I do not have jurisdiction to perform the analysis you require, it will not be performed and the data will not be requested. If the court decides that I have jurisdiction to perform the analysis you require and request the necessary data, I will ask for the data and, when provided with it, endeavour to produce the analysis,” Page wrote to Mulcair.

Mulcair said Wednesday that the government has tried to “shut down” the PBO since it was created by the Conservative government in its signature Federal Accountability Act.

“That’s the game the Conservatives have played since Day 1. But it’s a constant with the Conservatives. Anything that dares stand up to them, that doesn’t tell them exactly what they want to hear will be shut down. That’s the constant message from the Conservatives.”

Earlier this month, Page released a report based on the fraction of the information he sought from 80 departments. Most departments had finally complied and sent information on the overall savings in main programs but only a quarter provided details on the impact on jobs and service levels.

He concluded the bulk of the government’s $5.2 billion in spending cuts appears to be coming from front-line programs and services for Canadians rather than “back-office” savings the government insisted no one would notice. The government strongly disagreed and said most of the cuts would come from operational savings as promised.

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