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Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page waits to testify before the Commons finance committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 26, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page waits to testify before the Commons finance committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 26, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Budget watchdog takes feds to court Add to ...

The Parliamentary Budget Officer is preparing to take more than 60 federal departments to court after he could not persuade them to voluntarily reveal how they intend to meet the Conservative government’s deficit-reduction targets.

Kevin Page, who has been at odds with the government on several occasions in the more than four years he has been doing his job, has been battling for months to have the details of the cuts released.

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By the time his extended deadline for handing over the information had come and gone last Friday, just 20 of 82 departments had complied. More than 40 had promised to provide him with the numbers but failed to do so. The remaining 20 simply ignored the demand from the outset.

That prompted Mr. Page to say Sunday that he would be putting the matter in the hands of a judge.

“I can confirm to you that the PBO will be filing and serving legal notice on all non-compliant deputy heads [of departments] early this week,” he said in a statement. “As it is now clear that this matter will constitute the subject of a legal action, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.”

The government has accused Mr. Page of operating outside his mandate as spending watchdog – an office the Conservatives established in 2006 as part of their promise to provide greater accountability to taxpayers.

“Now he wants to have a look at money, as I say, that’s not being spent, rather than the manner in which money is spent, which is actually his mandate as the Parliamentary Budget Officer,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Sunday on CTV’s Question Period, echoing previous statements made by Treasury Board President Tony Clement.

“So there’s been a tendency on his part to try to expand his mandate into other areas for which he is not responsible,” said Mr. Flaherty.

The March 2012 budget announced plans to cut $5.1-billion a year by 2014-15, which amounts to 1.9 per cent of total federal program spending. But, while the budget broke down the cuts by department, the document provided very little detail as to how the cuts would be achieved.

Opposition members say that means they are being asked to vote on budget bills without understanding the full ramifications of their decisions.

“I sure hoped it wouldn’t come to this,” said Peggy Nash, the NDP Ffinance critic. “We have never had a situation like this where, to get basic information, [the Parliamentary Budget Officer] has had to take the government to court so it is a pretty sad day for democracy in Canada if that happens.”

The departments that have not complied with Mr. Page’s demands include many of the large ones, such as Finance, Foreign Affairs, Immigration, Environment and the Treasury Board. They also include the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which has been under fire for its oversight of an Alberta meat-packing plant at the centre of a massive meat recall because of a bacterial outbreak.

John McCallum, the Liberal critic for the Treasury Board, said the fact that Mr. Page is having to take the government to court is ridiculous but also very serious.

“These are not inconsequential departments,” said Mr. McCallum. “If he is to carry out his job, he didn’t have any alternative.”

At the same time Mr. Page is lining up his legal ducks, the government has rejected the recommendations of an all-party parliamentary committee aimed at strengthening the oversight of government spending.

They included a call for a review of the mandate and functions of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Mr. Page’s office currently falls under the jurisdiction of the Library of Parliament. MPs on the committee recommended that a study be conducted to determine if the PBO should be made an independent Officer of Parliament, like the Auditor-General.

The suggestion was quickly dismissed by Mr. Clement.

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