Parliamentary watchdog officials say they’ll pay for info themselves
OTTAWA – Officials at Parliament’s budget watchdog office say they are using their own money to file access to information requests in order to reduce government interference.
Employees at the parliamentary budget office prepared 35 money orders Tuesday, following seven requests already sent out almost two weeks ago.
PBO sources say the first requests focus on defence spending and the rest will ask for information about cuts from the 2012 budget.
“In a world of paranoid information control, their fears are probably justified,” said Liberal MP and defence critic John McKay.
“This is a government which controls all information, all access to information, all material upon which a reasonable voter could make up his or her mind with factual information, and they just shut that down in favour of the massive Conservative propaganda machine.
“I think it’s perfectly understandable from the standpoint of the parliamentary budget officer.”
Interim Parliamentary Budget Officer Sonia L’Heureux recently said in a statement that a majority of departments and agencies are still withholding information on the impact of billions in federal spending cuts.
L’Heureux, who is also the Parliamentary librarian, is away from the office this week and not giving interviews in her temporary position.
Sources say employees are paying for the requests themselves because they don’t want them traced back to the office or the Library of Parliament, under which the PBO is housed.
Requests cost $5 each initially and are subject to extra fees depending on the type of information requested and time spent finding it. In total, 42 requests will cost $210.
“It’s a disgrace that they’re forced to go to these lengths just to do the work of the parliamentary budget office, work that Canadians ought to be getting without having to resort to these lengths of freedom of information,” said NDP finance critic Peggy Nash.
“It just shows once again how secretive this government has become. I keep asking, what are they afraid of?”
A spokesman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement said the minister was not available for an interview Tuesday.
Spokesman Matthew Conway repeated the government’s previous line in an email: “The government continues to provide the PBO with information that falls within its mandate,” he said.
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.
Officials at the PBO first filed the access requests because they said they were not getting the information they needed by asking government departments.
The parliamentary budget officer gets $2.8-million a year in federal funding, but as officer of the Library of Parliament she cannot legally compel the government to release information.
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. All requests must be answered within 30 days.
The office under inaugural watchdog Kevin Page found itself at odds with the Conservatives 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.
It was announced last week that Page is attempting to start a fiscal studies institute at the University of Ottawa.
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