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."
Here's a look at some of the measures in the bill's 400-plus pages. It's not an exhaustive list, so be warned: there will be another budget bill in the fall.<br><br><em>With files from CBC</em>. (CP)
The government wants a "one project, one review" environmental assessment system, so it is repealing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and replacing it with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012. It allows the federal government to designate an assessment to another jurisdiction, such as a province, and for another jurisdiction's assessment to substitute for a federal one. It sets out time limits for the completion of reviews and the minister will have the power to shut down a review panel if he thinks it won't finish on time.
E-I, E-I - OH? 'SUITABLE WORK?'
Employment insurance claimants are required to demonstrate they are actively seeking "suitable work" in order to receive payments. C-38 removes definitions of "suitable work" from the Employment Insurance Act and gives the federal cabinet the power to create new regulations about what constitutes suitable work and reasonable efforts to find work. The budget bill gives no details about what the new criteria will be. It also makes changes to how payments are calculated, to pay claimants based on their "best 14 weeks" of employment.
LIGHTER LOAD FOR AUDITOR GENERAL
Auditor General Michael Ferguson will no longer be required to annually audit several agencies, including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Northern Pipeline Agency and the Canadian Polar Commission. The agencies must submit annual financial reports to the minister instead. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says this move was made at the request of the auditor general.
CHARITY RULE CHANGES
C-38 proposes amendments to the Income Tax Act's rules around political activities of charities. Charities aren't supposed to spend more than 10 per cent of their budgets on political advocacy. Under C-38, donating to a charity could be considered a political activity if the donation can "reasonably be considered" to be for the sole purpose of supporting political activities. So, if one charity gives money to another charity for political purposes, it would count toward the donor's 10 per cent limit, not just the recipient's total. It also gives the minister of national revenue the power to withhold tax receipts from a charity or association if it devotes resources to political activities in excess of the limits.
BACKLOGGED IMMIGRATION APPLICATIONS ELIMINATED
Among the amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act is a move to wipe out a backlog of 280,000 applications under the Federal Skilled Worker Program. Applications made before 2008 would be deleted and the application fee refunded.
Legislation currently protects fish habitats that are defined as "spawning grounds and nursery, rearing, food supply and migration areas on which fish depend directly or indirectly in order to carry out their life processes." Bill C-38 would instead protect fish based on their use: bodies of water that support commercial, recreational and aboriginal fisheries or fish that support such fisheries. It rewrites the Fisheries Act's rules against work that can cause the destruction of a fish habitat. The bill also would allow the federal government to transfer Fisheries Act responsibilities to a province with equivalent laws.
MINI TAX BREAKS
There is some good tax news in the budget bill. It expands the list of goods and services free of GST and HST, adding some prescription drugs and more medical devices to currently exempt items like false teeth and hearing aids. The bill would also allow literacy organizations to claim a GST rebate or the federal component of HST paid on books they give away for free.
GG GETS RAISE, TAX RETURN
The bill increases Gov. Gen. David Johnston's salary from $137,500 to $270,602 starting on Jan.1, 2013 -- but he's no longer exempt from paying income tax. His salary was hiked to offset the taxman's bite.
NEW CROSS-BORDER LAW
The budget bill creates a new law to implement the Framework Agreement on Integrated Cross-Border Law Enforcement Operations that was signed between Canada and the United States in 2009. It applies to joint operations between authorities in both countries on the seas.
BYE-BYE AT SPY AGENCY
The budget bill scraps the office of the inspector general at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The office is meant to be the public safety minister's eyes and ears overseeing CSIS. It also makes other changes on how CSIS reports to the minister.
Bill C-38 shuts down several government-funded groups and agencies, including the National Council of Welfare, the Public Appointments Commission, Rights and Democracy, the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, the Canadian Artists and Producers Professional Relations Tribunal and Assisted Human Reproduction Canada.
It creates a new Social Security Tribunal to hear appeals of decisions made on Old Age Security, employment insurance and other benefit programs, and creates the new Shared Services Canada Department.
NOT A PENNY MORE
The government is phasing out the penny but is changing the law so pennies can still be used as legal tender even though they are being removed from circulation. The current law says a coin that's been "called in" is not legal tender.
SEE YA SIN CARDS
The government wants to phase out the plastic card that displays your social insurance number, and Bill C-38 makes the necessary changes to existing laws so it is no longer required. Canadians will still have SINs, they just won't be carried on a plastic card.
OLD AGE SECURITY
The age of eligibility for OAS will rise gradually to 67 from 65 starting in 2023. C-38 lays out a complicated chart showing how that change will be phased in.