With a Wednesday deadline looming, Kevin Page says there are positive signs that federal departments will cough up details on spending cuts that the Parliamentary Budget Officer has been requesting for months.
If that doesn’t happen, the PBO plans on taking Ottawa to Federal Court, where it appears Mr. Page would face a willing combatant in Treasury Board President Tony Clement.
The two men took to the airwaves on the Thanksgiving weekend, firing verbal jabs over whether the PBO is going too far.
Though the Conservatives created the PBO, there have been numerous arguments over the years between the government and Mr. Page over the appropriate role of the office. Generally, most of the disputes have been over transparency and whether Mr. Page should have access to internal government documents and databases.
The latest battle with the PBO comes as the government is on the defensive over the specific impact of budget cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is in the midst of responding to a massive beef recall. Ottawa’s March budget outlined plans for an ongoing cut of $56.1-million – or 7.8 per cent – to the CFIA’s $722-million budget by 2014-15. Mr. Page says this is an example of an area where his office needs a better explanation of what is being cut.
Mr. Clement – who led a cabinet committee that found about $5.2-billion in ongoing, government-wide savings – is also facing criticism from federal public service unions over the personal impacts of the reductions. Union leaders say their members are facing unnecessarily high levels of stress because departments are not being clear as to how they will meet the government’s target of cutting 19,200 jobs.
Mr. Clement – who only last week was citing the PBO’s work extensively in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada as evidence that Ottawa’s finances are solid over the long term – accused Mr. Page of going beyond his mandate in an interview that aired Saturday morning on CBC Radio.
“All of a sudden he’s fixated on something entirely outside his mandate, which is what we’re not spending money on. So my advice to the budget officer is to spend your time doing your job rather than spending time on things that are not part of your job,” said Mr. Clement. “I’m making the argument that he’s outside his mandate. There’s lots of work for him to do inside his mandate and he should stick to that.”
Mr. Page responded Sunday in a televised interview with CTV’s Question Period.
“I think it makes no sense to us to say we can’t look at austerity,” he said. “So we think we’re very clearly within our mandate. And it’s very important to look at austerity. Sometimes what you don’t spend money on is just as important as what you spend money on.”
Mr. Page said taking Ottawa to court isn’t the PBO’s preferred choice, but it is prepared to do so if departments do not provide details on the impacts of spending cuts.
Last week, the PBO sent a letter to all federal deputy ministers, asking them to provide these details. The PBO had previously been trying to get these answers from the head of the public service, Privy Council Clerk Wayne Wouters. By the end of last week, Mr. Page said there was some movement from departments.
“In the last few days, Thursday, Friday, we started to get calls from some big departments for the first time, [asking]: ‘What exactly do you want?’ and hopefully [that’s] a positive signal that we might get this information. I think there are a lot of deputies that know that the system depends on providing this information to Parliament and it’s their job … We still have hope that we’ll get some information. ”
The position of Parliamentary Budget Officer was created by the Conservative government as part of the Accountability Act in 2006. That law defined the PBO’s mandate as an office that will “provide independent analysis to the Senate and to the House of Commons about the state of the nation’s finances, the estimates of the government and the trends in the national economy.”
The mandate, which is now part of the Parliament of Canada Act, also states that the PBO is “entitled,” via a request to deputy ministers, “to free and timely access to any financial or economic data in the possession of the department that is required for the performance of his or her mandate.” The law provides departments with the power to refuse these requests if the material contains cabinet confidences.
Mr. Page, who was a career federal public servant before his appointment as the first Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2008, has said he will not ask to stay on in the job when his term expires in March.