The federal government is refusing to release details of its budget cuts to Canada’s budget watchdog even after a legal expert deemed it was breaking the law.
Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page has been fighting with the government over details of what $5.2 billion in budget cuts will mean to Canadians. The government does not deny it knows the impact of the cuts, but it has refused to provide details.
Page believes he has a legal right to the information and sought an outside opinion from University of Ottawa law professor Joseph Magnet.
Magnet agreed with Page that the Parliament of Canada Act guarantees the parliamentary budget officer free and timely access to data. Magnet said the government has offered no legal case for why the budget cuts should be exempted from this.
The Harper Conservatives created the budget office in 2007 but have frequently feuded with Page over access in recent years.
Page says taking the government to court over its secrecy is a last resort. But Treasury Board president Tony Clement stood by his position Monday that the government will gradually release information over several months.
“Clearly, we disagree that it’s illegal," Clement said. “We wouldn’t do anything that’s illegal."
The government has said it cannot release a full breakdown of what the cuts will do to government because collective agreements require affected employees to be notified first. Unions responded by publicly calling for the information to be released, as long as specific employees are not named.
Clement insisted Monday this would amount to breaking contracts.
“It’s nice of them (the unions) to waive the workers’ rights, but we have a connection to workers, too. It’s not just through the union. We think that the decent and compassionate thing to do is let the worker know, and then of course report to Parliament."
Clement said the information will gradually come out, likely through means such as quarterly reports and supplementary estimates.
But Page is in a separate argument with the government over quarterly reports. He says many departments do not include information in the reports to make them useful. Supplementary estimates contain a full breakdown of the government’s books but they are not tabled until months after the end of the fiscal year.
Page isn’t yet saying whether he will take the government to court over the budget cut details.
He says that without this information, members of Parliament will not be able to hold the government accountable. He has also said it is a breach of the Westminster democratic tradition to force MPs to vote on the budget without fully knowing what they are voting for.
“If we don’t draw a line in the sand now, we’re missing an important opportunity," Page said on CBC-TV.
Opposition parties are rallying behind Page.
“The parliamentary budget officer doesn’t operate in a bubble," said Kings-Hants Liberal MP Scott Brison. “His office is there to serve Parliament, to enable us to do our jobs.
“We cannot do our jobs if we’re voting blindly on legislation."
NDP House leader Nathan Cullen recently tried to start a contempt motion against the Conservative government for hiding budget details from parliamentarians, who are supposed to oversee the public purse.
Speaker Andrew Scheer threw out the motion. The Speaker is the referee of the House, but Scheer said his role does not extend to compelling the government to release information. He told MPs they will have to go to the courts for that.
Page first asked on April 12 for details of the impact of the cuts.
So far, 16 organizations, mostly smaller agencies, have answered the call. Another 64 have refused.
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