Feds brush off budget watchdog's legal opinion on government secrecy

OTTAWA – The federal government says it has already provided Parliament’s budget watchdog with all the necessary information on the impact of budget cuts, despite a new legal opinion saying government is breaking the law by refusing to cough up more details.

“We have provided financial and economic data in accordance with our understanding of our legal obligations,” Raymond Rivet, a spokesman for the Privy Council Office, said in an email statement.

“We have received the legal opinion and will review it.”

Budget officer Kevin Page published a legal opinion on Monday saying that 64 federal departments and agencies are breaking the law in their refusal to hand over basic economic and financial information.

While the opinion centres around $5.2 billion in spending cuts announced in the budget, the same reasoning applies to lack of information on previous rounds of spending constraint — cuts that amount to about $11 billion annually, Page said in an interview.

Without basic details about how the government plans to make ends meet, the parliamentary budget officer said he is not able to do his job and inform MPs about exactly how Ottawa is spending taxpayers’ money.

He said only 18 of 82 federal organizations have complied with his request for more details about the fiscal impact of the latest cuts.

“The information should have been provided as requested and both your department and the other departments that have not complied are in violation of the legal obligations under the (Parliament of Canada) Act,” Page wrote in a letter to Wayne Wouters, the clerk of the Privy Council.

Wouters is the federal government’s top civil servant.

The legal opinion provides the groundwork for challenging the government in Federal Court, but Page said he would prefer if the paperwork acted instead as a catalyst for discussion — and the quick release of the budget details themselves.

“We hope to get a response back from the public service, from the government, on our legal opinion,” Page said in an interview. “Did we craft it right? Have we argued our case correctly? Do they have a different point of view?

“Most importantly, what we hope to get back is the information we requested.”

Instead, federal ministers repeatedly pointed to other government reporting mechanisms that they say will provide the necessary details on cuts.

“This prime minister and this government will continue to report to Parliament through the means that have been used for many years. This includes the estimates, the supplementary estimates, quarterly reports and the public accounts,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in the House of Commons.

Page’s staffers have gone through every line of those reports and have not been able to piece together a complete accounting of the government plan, or even if there is such a plan.

In the legal opinion, lawyers said the act requires the federal government to release financial and economic data in a timely matter.

“No legal exception to this requirement has been advanced and none appears from the analysis of the correspondence exchanged,” said the summary of the legal opinion. “Accordingly, the non-compliant departments have statutory obligations to provide the information.”

The federal government has said in the past that it can’t release the details of its budget cuts because of collective agreements with employees, and it repeated that line on Monday. But the legal opinion points out that Page is not asking for any personal information, nor does he aim to obtain details that would only be available in cabinet documents.

“It is in the interests of Parliament and the Canadian public that such information be made available immediately,” Page said in the Monday letter. “As I have mentioned before, it is only with such information that Parliament can exercise its constitutional role of controlling public finances.”

There’s more than just fiscal policy at stake in the standoff between Page and the government; there’s also the scope of the parliamentary budget office itself.

The office was created through the Conservatives’ own Accountability Act in 2006, and Page is the first to hold the job. He is trying to determine exactly how far his mandate allows him to go.

“I think there’s a fiscal issue, which is why we were obviously involved in it,” Page said in the interview. “I think there’s a bigger issue about institutions, about the role and the mandate of the parliamentary budget office as well. We need access to information.”

His office has clashed frequently with the government, with him demanding more information and the government accusing him of reaching shoddy conclusions with the information he does manage to collect.

They have sparred publicly over the cost of the F-35s, the Tory crime agenda, stimulus spending and the reliability of long-term forecasting. This is the first time, however, that Page has sought such a legal opinion.

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said the legal opinion is one more piece of proof that the Conservatives are trying to fool the public with their convoluted budget process.

“Once again the Conservatives are trying to hide the truth about their Trojan Horse budget,” Mulcair said, pointing out that government unions had already given the government the green light to release the requested information.

The NDP has been on the offensive over the budget especially in the past few weeks, protesting the government’s bundling of disparate measures into a massive omnibus budget bill.