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Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page speaks to reporters after testifying at the Commons finance committee on April 26, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page speaks to reporters after testifying at the Commons finance committee on April 26, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Budget watchdog comes up empty handed in bid to detail Tory cuts Add to ...

Most federal departments are giving Kevin Page the cold shoulder as the Parliamentary Budget Officer tries to find out what is actually being cut in the push to balance the books.

Nearly a month after the watchdog asked all departments to fill out a form outlining their restraint plans, the PBO reported Wednesday that he has only received answers from eight small departments. Combined, they represent just 0.06 per cent of the total savings promised in the 2012 budget.

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The budget promised a combined savings of $5.2-billion a year and listed total spending cuts for each department, but few details were provided.

The PBO’s frustration at the lack of detail on spending cuts in the budget comes as opposition MPs are also raising concerns about the lack of government answers on the measures contained in the omnibus budget implementation act, Bill C-38.

One of the more unusual aspects of the government’s messaging on the budget has been the argument that it cannot explain the legislation’s changes to Employment Insurance because the policy hasn’t been finalized.

The budget bill removes key sections of the Employment Insurance Act that allow recipients to turn down jobs if they are not in their field, offer lower pay or do not involve good working conditions. The legislation gives the government the power to set new rules later through regulation without parliamentary approval.

“Right now, the policy is being developed,” Conservative MP Kellie Leitch told the CBC last week when asked to explain the measures. Ms. Leitch is the parliamentary secretary to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who has said the measures will be explained in the coming “weeks and months.”

That has led to some speculation in Ottawa that perhaps the EI measures were originally planned for the second budget bill in the fall but were mistakenly included in this first budget bill.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty rejected that theory Wednesday when asked on his way in to a meeting of the Conservative caucus.

“No, we make choices about what goes in the first budget bill and the second budget bill and we try to get as much into the first bill as we can to advance the program for jobs and growth and long-term prosperity,” he said.

“As we go forward, [ministers will]be able to explain what we’re doing in terms of the EI. Basically what we’re doing is removing disincentives to joining the workforce. We’re doing that with respect to EI but also with respect to seniors, with respect to persons with disabilities. These are all important initiatives.”

The opposition argues the government has gone too far in stuffing the budget bill with a wide range of policy measures that should have been introduced and studied as separate, standalone pieces of legislation. But Mr. Flaherty insists there’s nothing unusual about Bill C-38.

“This is my seventh budget,” he said. “There’s nothing new this year compared to other years.”

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