The Parliamentary Budget Officer has irked the government on more than one occasion but Kevin Page’s latest move has prompted the members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet to question whether he is overstepping his authority.
“We simply ask that the PBO do his job, and of course we will do our job through the regular means of reporting to Parliament,” Treasury Board President Tony Clement told the House of Commons Wednesday.
Mr. Page, who was appointed to provide an independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation’s finances, filed a legal opinion this week stating that 64 out of 84 government departments and agencies were breaking the law by refusing to provide him with basic information about $5.2-billion in spending cuts forecast in the budget.
That prompted Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to say on Tuesday that, “from time to time and on occasion, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has overstepped his mandate.”
When the government was asked about Mr. Baird’s comments a day later, Mr. Clement reminded the House about a 2009 parliamentary committee report that found Mr. Page’s approach was inconsistent with his mandate. In that case, the Parliamentary Budget Officer was stating his intention to disclose the answers to all questions he received from parliamentarians on his website, whether or not the person asking the question had given him permission to do so.
The Conservatives created the position of Parliamentary Budget Officer as part of the accountability measures they introduced six years ago and, since his appointment in 2008, Mr. Page’s reports have often disputed the government’s own numbers.
He said the Tories had underestimated the costs of a fleet of F-35 fighter jets, he said the crime bills they were introducing would cost much more than forecast, and he reported that Old Age Security benefits would be sustainable over time even if the age of eligibility was not raised as the government intends. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty labelled Mr. Page’s report on OAS “unbelievable, unreliable, incredible.”
But the pushback from the Conservatives on his efforts to get information about the budget cuts has been orchestrated and sustained.
Mr. Page said in a telephone interview Wednesday that his office provided the legal opinion about the responsibility of the government to disclose information about its planned reductions and, if the government believes he has overstepped his mandate, he would hope that it provides its own legal opinion to that effect.
“We’ve got a legal opinion saying we need this information and this information is 100 per cent consistent, we think, with our mandate,” Mr. Page said. “We are sending MPs back [to their ridings] for the summer break, including Conservative MPs, and if they were asked by their constituents ‘what does this mean for the Coast Guard, for the food-inspection agency, for Parks Canada, for Service Canada, and on and on and on,’ they would say ‘I really don’t know. I am going to have to wait to see until all of the decisions are made.’”
Although the government says Mr. Page has overstepped his mandate, the opposition is in his corner.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae pointed out to the House the federal Accountability Act, which created Mr. Page’s position, says information from government departments will be given to the Parliamentary Budget Officer in a timely manner. “Therefore, I would like to ask the Prime Minister again, how is this going beyond his powers?”
Mr. Harper replied that the government does give information to all parliamentarians on a complete and timely basis. “There are a number of means through which we do that and we will continue to do so.”