September 12, 2014 5:30 am
Updated: September 12, 2014 6:58 am

Budget watchdog ‘one step’ from taking government to court

Canada’s budget watchdog is one step away from igniting a costly legal battle, as the Harper government continues to withhold information.

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OTTAWA  — Canada’s budget watchdog is one step away from taking the Harper government to court in an effort to uncover the impacts of massive spending and staffing cuts announced more than two years ago.

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“I have to eliminate one more step,” Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette said in an interview this week. “At the end, if we have to go back to court, we’ll go back to court. All [other possible] steps will have been taken.”

That last step is hammering out data-sharing agreements with federal departments. If that fails, Frechette will be the second budget watchdog (out of two) to take the federal government to court.

READ MORE: Better late than never, PBO says while still digging into Tory budget cuts

Way back in their 2012 budget, the Conservatives announced they would cut $5.2 billion and 19,000 jobs from the federal public service. But an information tug-of-war has left Canadians in the dark on any details surrounding the cuts. The programs and jobs affected, and any consequences those changes may have on services, remain a mystery.

Frechette took over the effort to obtain data from Kevin Page, the country’s first parliamentary budget officer.

Page first brought the matter to court when the Conservatives refused to give him data allowing him to analyse the impacts of the 2012 cuts.

Conservatives said Page was overstepping his mandate. At the time, Treasury Board President Tony Clement and then-finance minister Jim Flaherty his mandate was limited to examining federal spending, not federal cuts.

The right to redress in court

Federal Court Justice Sean Harrington dismissed Page’s case on a technicality in April 2013. Buthis ruling strongly suggested the government cant use its majority to deny the watchdog information and that in the case of a dispute, the court has the power to intervene.

Essentially, the ruling paved the way for the watchdog to take the government to court a second time in order to get documents.

READ MORE: Mulcair tells PBO, ‘don’t forget about that whole compliance thing’

Frechette said he first wanted to exhaust all “parliamentary remedies” Harrington suggested in his ruling — speaking with the parliamentary librarian, the speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate, as well as committees.

“All of this has been done, and even more,” Frechette said. “Everybody is aware of the situation. I did my homework.”

‘One last step’

The one step Frechette said he is hoping will work is drafting memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with departments. He is in the process of developing his first one, with Canada Revenue Agency in order to analyse the tax gap, and will use it as a means to demonstrate how his office can work with others.

“I have to eliminate that last step, which is this MOU, that will hopefully serve as an example … a beginning of a new relationship with departments,” Frechette said.

“If it doesn’t work, well, then we’re going to have to make a real decision. Going back to court implies money, time … When do you consider you have exhausted all of your other remedies and approaches?” Frechette asked with an answer already prepared.

“I think that after [I’ve been trying] for a year, I’m really close.”

WATCH: The PBO is still trying to get his hands on figures from the government on spending cuts announced in the 2012 budget.

33 access-to-information requests, one useful answer

Under an interim head in August 2013, the PBO resorted to filing requests under federal access-to-information laws, which give all Canadians the right to access relevant federal documents and data.

The office filed 33 requests in August 2013, but only one department returned data the office could analyse.

“Thirty-two either refused, provided no data or provided totally irrelevant data,” Frechette said.

READ MORE: PBO: ‘I’m not Mr. Page’ 

Four departments, including Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans, never bothered to answer the requests.

In some cases, Frechette’s office even paid additional fees when told the request would require hours and work beyond what’s covered with the $5 fee paid for every access-to-information request. None came back with useful information, prompting the office to file complaints with Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault.

“Clearly this is going nowhere,” Frechette said. “It’s not something that’s working. Not for us. Not for this kind of data.”

First annual report

That access-to-information saga will be in the office’s annual report, scheduled for release in November. This year will mark the first time the PBO tables its own annual report, independent of the Library of Parliament, under which the office operates.

In addition to the information on his access-to-information requests, Frechette’s report will note that last year the office had all data required for fulsome analyses 55 per cent of the time. It will also include some “performance indicators,” such as the number of times his office is mentioned in media and on the floor of either the Commons or Senate.

In 2013-14, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer was mentioned in the media 864 times, compared to 1,006 times in 2011-12, according to the draft report. The year before, in 2010-11, the office was mentioned 1,083 times and in 2009-10, 765 times.

READ MORE: Kevin Page: the accidental crusader

There was a spike in 2012-13, with 1,435 mentions, because of a piece of legislation on the floor of the Commons. (As the report is still in draft form, it is possible these figures will be slightly adjusted before final publication.)

“It’s interesting to compare. There’s a story there,” Frechette said, noting his satisfaction with the numbers. “The annual report becomes a powerful tool, one I can use to achieve my priorities,including defending the right to access data.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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