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Kevin Page, Budget Watchdog, Accuses Government Of Breaking Law With Budget Secrecy

Government Accused Of Breaking Law With Budget Secrecy

OTTAWA - Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page is warning the federal government that 64 departments and agencies have broken the law by refusing to hand over information about upcoming budget cuts.

In a June 18 letter to the Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters, Page says he has obtained a legal opinion that confirms his right to request and receive information about the effects of $5.2 billion in cuts.

"Whether legal action will be taken going forward will depend on a myriad of factors, not the least of which is whether the information is provided or valid legal grounds are advanced by the Clerk or deputy heads for failing to provide the information," Page told The Huffington Post Canada in an email.

"We very much prefer an exchange of views and a timely response of information so we can brief Parliamentarians appropriately on the plans to implement restraint this fall (and they can do their job to hold the government to account)," he added. "Freezing direct program spending over a five year period is a significant challenge and will require excellent planning," he said.

Only 18 out of 82 departments and agencies responded to Page's request in April for data. Institutions such as the CBC, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and the Canada Food Inspection Agency have ignored Page's requests.

Opposition MPs hammered the government over its refusal to abide by its own law in Question Period on Monday. The Parliamentary Budget Officer was established in 2006 by the newly elected Conservative government as part of its benchmark Accountability Act.

"This is the prime minister's own accountability act that we are taking about. Why is the prime minister breaking his government's own accountability law," asked NDP leader Thomas Mulcair.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who was treasury board president when the Tories introduced the Accountability Act, suggested the government had no plans to report the effects of the budget cuts through Page's office.

"This prime minister and this government will continue to report to Parliament through the means that have been used for many, many years. This includes the estimates, the supplementary estimates, the quarterly reports, the public accounts," Baird said.

"You are breaking the law," Mulcair shot back. "The Federal Accountability Act requires that members of Parliament be given 'free and timely access to any and all financial data in the possession of the government,' that is the law!"

Liberal interim leader Bob Rae said the government was not only showing contempt for Parliament but contempt for its own backbench, Page and the law.

In May, the clerk of the privy council told Page he would have to wait if he wanted more information. The federal government would first contact employees and their unions about the job cuts, as required under applicable collective agreements, Wouters said in a letter.

"Once this has happened, and as was clearly noted in the budget, the government will then begin to implement these planned reductions in departmental spending and communicate accordingly," Wouters wrote.

The government planned to inform Parliament on the budget cuts by using "the existing suite of reporting vehicles," Wouters added, suggesting Parliamentary committee appearances and various reporting and planning documents would be sufficient.

Page, however, argues that he has an important role in ensuring Parliamentarians live up to their constitutional role as administrators of the public purse.

Under the Parliament of Canada Act, which the Conservatives amended in 2006 when they created the Parliamentary budget watchdog position, Page says departments have no choice but to provide him with the data he requested in a timely fashion. The legal opinion he obtained from two University of Ottawa professors, Joseph Magnet and Tolga R Yalkin, confirms his belief.

"If information is not provided ... there are deeper, constitutional consequences at play for the institutions of our political system," he told HuffPost. "So, here we have, at once, breach of a federal statute and a concerning weakening of our constitutional system of checks and balances."

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