OTTAWA – Employees at Canada’s budget watchdog office will soon start filing access to information requests because they claim they can’t get what they need from the Conservative government to do their work.
The move to submit access requests, which any Canadian citizen can do, comes after interim Parliamentary Budget Officer Sonia L’Heureux said this week that a majority of departments and agencies are still withholding information on the impact of billions in federal spending cuts.
In the words of one insider, the system has reached “rock bottom.”
PBO officials confirm the requests, known as ATIPs, will be filed shortly and will ask for information about $5.2 billion in ongoing spending cuts from the 2012 budget and military procurement, such as Arctic patrol ships.
“This is a total disgrace,” said Liberal finance critic Scott Brison.
“It’s a disgrace that it’s come to this, that the PBO has to file ATIPs simply to get the information that it is entitled to.”
L’Heureux, who is also the Parliamentary Librarian, is not granting any interviews because of her temporary position. It is not known when the permanent PBO will be chosen.
A spokesman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement said the minister was travelling in rural Quebec Thursday and unavailable for comment.
“The government continues to provide the PBO with information that falls within its mandate,” said spokesman Matthew Conway, who did not specifically address questions.
Almost as soon as it was created by the Conservatives in 2006, the office under inaugural watchdog Kevin Page found itself at odds with the government on issues such as F-35 fighter jets and tough-on-crime legislation.
The battle culminated in a federal court case that was dismissed in April on a technicality, although Justice Sean Harrington strongly suggested the government cannot deny information to the budget watchdog.
Page, a career public servant who left the job in March, said it was always within the office’s mandate to file access to information requests. But he believed with perseverance it could get information through official channels.
He said it looks like the situation is getting worse.
“I’m disappointed that it’s come this far, that we’ve fallen this low,” said Page, who now holds the Jean-Luc Pepin Research Chair on Canadian Government at the University of Ottawa.
“It sounds like an effort to shut the budget office down. But not just the budget office, it really shuts down Parliament. That’s the much more important issue.”
But he added he’s not surprised PBO employees are fighting to get the information, through whichever channels they can.
In June, the Conservatives killed a private member’s bill introduced by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, which would have made the watchdog a full-fledged, independent officer of Parliament and given the office new legal powers.
The parliamentary budget officer is currently an officer of the Library of Parliament and has less independence as a result. The officer also cannot legally compel the government to release information.
The office’s mandate, as set out in the 2006 Accountability Act, is to provide independent analysis to Parliament on the nation’s finances, government estimates and trends in the economy. The act was one of the first pieces of legislation passed when the Conservatives won government.
But the parliamentary budget office maintains it requires other non-financial or economic data to do its work – and that information is denied or stonewalled.
By comparison, the office says, all Canadians and permanent residents can file access requests at a cost of $5 and there are far fewer limitations on what information can be released. As well, there are legal repercussions for withholding information under the Access to Information Act.
Critics say the PBO should not have to resort to filing access to information requests.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris says he’s requested information from the government about infrastructure spending reductions, military procurement and reservists.
“It’s pretty sad and pathetic really if you have a parliamentary budget office set up with the sole purpose of providing information to Parliamentarians and they don’t have any more access than the general public does,” he said.
“This government promoted the parliamentary budget office in the beginning, and created it, but they don’t really want it to work.”
NDP finance critic Peggy Nash said her party is looking at legal options to get the government to release budget information to the PBO, which was originally requested by Mulcair.
“This is something that is important to Canadians. It’s about transparency and accountability for the taxes that people pay, and Canadians have a right to know how their money is being spent,” she said.
“Under the Conservatives, they’re not getting that information.”
Liberal national defence critic John McKay has also requested information from the government and shared it with the PBO.
He said “under no circumstance” should the PBO have to file access requests.
“The information should be forthcoming, and you have to ask yourself, what is it that (Prime Minister Stephen Harper) and his ministers are so afraid of?” he said
McKay said denying basic information prevents MPs from doing their jobs, because ultimately the job of Parliament is to hold the government executive to account.
“When you withhold information, or mislead people with information, you actually destroy the underpinnings of democracy,” said McKay.
“And it’s happening, it’s happening right underneath people’s noses.”
With files from the Canadian Press