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Mulcair bill to give budget watchdog more power

NDP leader Tom Mulcair is pictured in his office on Jan. 29, 2013. Mr. Mulcair is tabling a private member’s bill this week to grant Canada’s federal budget watchdog more power and to protect it from political influence.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is tabling a private member's bill this week to grant Canada's federal budget watchdog more power and to protect it from political influence.

The legislation won't pass without the blessing of the majority Conservative caucus, but it will draw attention to the Tory government's failure to make the Parliamentary Budget Office an independent entity when it created the post more than half a decade ago.

The timing is ripe. Kevin Page, the first Parliamentary Budget Officer, is ending a stormy term next month after five years of butting heads with the Conservatives who came to resent his frequent questioning of their fiscal assumptions. The Harper Conservatives took power in 2006 pledging to create a watchdog who would ensure "truth in budgeting." But instead of giving it sufficient teeth, they stuck the new office inside the Library of Parliament, making it subservient to a Hill bureaucracy that dislikes controversy and the public role Mr. Page is playing. Mr. Page, who spent his years as watchdog trying to make the office an authority on budgeting, such as the Congressional Budget Office in Washington, has recommended that the post be upgraded to report to Parliament instead of the chief librarian on the Hill.

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Mr. Mulcair's bill calls for just that: making the Parliamentary Budget Office an independent officer of Parliament and strengthening its mandate. Both the Auditor-General and the Chief Electoral Officer are independent Officers of Parliament. They are also referred to as "agents of Parliament," which emphasizes their autonomy from the government of the day. The NDP Leader's bill should be placed on the order paper by Monday evening, sources say, and Mr. Mulcair is expected to table the bill in the Commons later this week.

The legislation will serve as a goad to put pressure on the Conservatives to grant the budget watchdog more autonomy.

The Tories have publicly groused about Mr. Page, criticizing the watchdog for what they see as overstepping his bounds. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty called the budget officer's work on the affordability of the old age security system "unbelievable, unreliable, incredible" and has accused him of wandering from his mandate. Mr. Page was forced to turn to the Federal Court in a fight with the Harper government over its refusal to release information on billions of dollars in spending cuts.

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