Watchdog won’t heel

Every so often a story bubbles up in the capital that is so important it demands attention, even if it is too easily dismissed as eye-glazing process.

Every so often a story bubbles up in the capital that is so important it demands attention, even if it is too easily dismissed as eye-glazing process.

Any yarn that includes the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Federal Court, spending cuts and deputy ministers admittedly lacks the ingredients of a potboiler.

But the case of Kevin Page vs. the federal government is simply too fundamental to the way this place is supposed to operate, and too vital to the tracking of taxpayers’ money, that it can’t be ignored.

Page is preparing to take more than 60 government departments and deputy ministers to court in a bid to force them to provide information on government cuts, information to which he is entitled under the mandate given him by the very government which is now forcing him to the courts.

It speaks to the culture of fear in the capital, this government’s predilection to demonize its opponents and makes a mockery of what is left of its pledge of accountability and transparency.

Most importantly, it goes to the reason we send MPs to Ottawa.

The Harper government is asking MPs, including its own backbench, to vote blindly on the spending of your tax money, a key reason these MPs arrive in this town each Monday.

Page has extended deadlines for departments to provide the information.

He reached out as tactfully as he could, assaulting departments with logic.

Before the House rose last spring, Page obtained a legal opinion stating that his mandate gave him the right to see the budget details he is seeking.

As a deadline approached, he had promises to comply from some 40 departments, but they magically evaporated.

It’s no secret in this town that a number of deputy ministers agree with Page that they should be providing details on what will be cut.

Page also appeared to win a victory when Wayne Wouters, the clerk of the Privy Council and the country’s most senior public servant, reversed himself and signalled that deputy ministers could decide independently whether they wanted to comply with Page’s request.

But the vise tightens with Treasury Board president Tony Clement and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty at the crank.

If the government’s reticence is a matter of principle, it is a contradictory principle.

Some smaller departments complied, while the larger departments gave Page the back of its hand.

Clement has agreed with a parliamentary committee’s recommendation that there is a need for better transparency and accountability and that MPs should be informed of specific program funding.

“Taxpayers and parliamentarians deserve a clear, discernible and traceable line between spending and results,” Clement said in response to the committee report.

But that won’t be provided by Page, in Clement’s view.

The government rationale in stonewalling Page has been a shifting one.

He was originally accused of overstepping his mandate — a deliberate misreading of a mandate “to provide independent analysis (to MPs) about the state of the nation’s finances.”

Then Clement and Flaherty took to parsing it this way: Page was responsible for studying the money the government spent, not the money it hasn’t spent.

Clement and Flaherty have been models of decorum this week with a court date looming, but they have not been shy about spitting their enmity toward Page in the past.

Flaherty has been particularly dismissive.

The relationship took a sharp turn south in 2010 when Page questioned the government’s spending on its law-and-order agenda, cast doubt on the infrastructure spending and job creation, and challenged Flaherty’s target for balancing the books.

Flaherty openly questioned Page’s credibility, but Page kept doing his job.

Last winter, when Page said Old Age Security is properly funded and can continue on its current path with a retirement age of 65, Flaherty dismissed Page’s view as “unbelievable, unreliable, incredible.”

He has butted heads with the government on the true cost of its troubled F-35 military procurement and its Afghanistan mission.

On Tuesday, Keith Beardsley, former deputy chief of staff to Harper, posted a blog, published online by the National Post, remembering the Conservative pledge to create a totally independent budget watchdog.

Beardsley wrote that sometimes grand visions of parties in opposition look a little different once they gain power. What his Conservatives promised in Page is not what has been delivered, he said.

The Conservatives created this monster, but when the monster proved to have a mind and will of his own, they tried to emasculate him.

Kevin Page is not going quietly into the night. He was given a job to do and he’s going to do it, whether the people who created him like it or not.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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