Secrecy thwarts watchdog

Canada’s budget watchdog will not issue a mid-year report on the Harper government’s finances, citing lack of co-operation from the vast majority of departments. Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page posted a partial analysis on the government’s $5.2 billion spending cuts plan Tuesday, but said a complete report that would be useful to parliamentarians is impossible because he just hasn’t been given enough information.

Canada’s budget watchdog will not issue a mid-year report on the Harper government’s finances, citing lack of co-operation from the vast majority of departments.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page posted a partial analysis on the government’s $5.2 billion spending cuts plan Tuesday, but said a complete report that would be useful to parliamentarians is impossible because he just hasn’t been given enough information.

He is seeking legal advice on whether he can sue Ottawa for the information, saying he will have an opinion this month.

“We’re just saying show us the plan. This is not just a PBO issue, Parliament needs to see this and if they do see it and start scrutinize these plans, the chance of hitting objectives goes up,” he said.

“But to say: We are not giving you the plan, totally undermines Parliament.”

Page said he has been begging departments and other governmental organizations to report to his office their plans for personnel cuts and their impact on programs and services for seven months, but in many cases has received only a perfunctory response.

To date, the PBO has received responses to requests about budget cutbacks from 91 per cent of government departments.

However, most have supplied inadequate information, he said.

Only one-quarter of departments, representing three per cent of the $5.2 billion in budgeted cutbacks, have provided data on personnel losses or the impact on services to Canadians, he said.

“The lack of disclosure will prevent the PBO from providing parliamentarians with independent analysis on the state of the nation’s finances and the estimates of the government,” the budget officer said.

On Monday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty reiterated his position that he does not believe Page is entitled to the information he is seeking.

“My concern is his mandate is to look at government spending,” Flaherty told CBC’s Power and Politics program.

“What’s he’s proposing to do now is look at government non-spending. I don’t see that in his mandate. I wish he would stick to his knitting, quite frankly, he has enough to do.”

Treasury Board President Tony Clement took a different tack Tuesday.

“All I can say is we continue to co-operate with Mr. Page,” Clement said outside the Commons.

“We have done so in the past. We’re doing so in the present. We’ll do so in the future.”

He said the government has a number of competing obligations, “so this process is quite all-encompassing in terms of our reporting.”

Flaherty is expected to issue the government’s economic update on the fiscal year so far later this month.

Page said his counterparts in other countries have no such difficulties, noting that his mandate is to scrutinize the estimates of the government, which would include both higher and lower levels of spending. He has the backing of the opposition parties on the interpretation.

But Page said he doesn’t want to go to court, and once he receives a legal opinion, he hopes the dispute can be resolved.

“The solution we want to achieve is a change in culture where transparency is the norm,” he said.

“The PBO cannot hold anyone to account, it’s only Parliament that can. It’s Parliament that needs this information. Wouldn’t our fiscal plans be better if we had front-end due diligence by parliamentarians? That’s their fiduciary responsibilities under the Constitution.”

Page gave no date when he will offer his next analysis, saying it will come “as further data is provided.”

Based on information he has received so far, he said the government will achieve most of its cost savings from cutbacks to international, immigration, defence and social programs and general government services.

Reductions in internal operations, or overhead, only represent about 15 per cent of the overall package, he said, but added that he has no information how service to Canadians is being impacted.

Clement, who has claimed most of the savings would come from “back office” operations in government, maintained that’s the case.

“I think we stand by our numbers,” he said.

“Our calculation is 70 per cent of expenditure reductions are in the back office certainly and we took special care to make sure that core services delivered to Canadians were not affected by any of our budget decisions.”

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