OTTAWA - The independent parliamentary budget office the Harper Conservatives conceived, created and staffed has overstepped its mandate, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Tuesday.
Budget officer Kevin Page published a legal opinion this week stating that 64 federal departments and agencies are breaking the law by withholding basic information from him.
In the legal opinion, lawyers said the Parliament of Canada Act requires the federal government to release financial and economic data to the parliamentary budget office in a timely matter.
Baird did not directly address the legal opinion in the House of Commons, but under questioning by the NDP he suggested Page is out of line.
"I have to say with great respect, I believe that from time to time and on occasion the parliamentary budget office has overstepped its mandate," Baird said.
Baird, standing in for the travelling prime minister, added that the Conservatives are committed to the same budgetary reporting mechanisms they once considered inadequate.
"Let me commit to this, that this government will continue to report to Parliament through the estimates, the supplementary estimates, quarterly reports and the public accounts, all the fiscal information this Parliament needs to do its job."
The PBO was created under the Conservatives' Federal Accountability Act in 2006 with a mandate to provide independent analysis of the state of the country's finances, government estimates and cost estimates of new programs.
"By establishing a parliamentary budget authority, the legislation would ensure parliamentary committees have access to independent and objective analysis on economic and fiscal issues," Baird, the lead minister on the Accountability Act, told a committee in May 2006.
Diane Ablonczy, the parliamentary secretary to the finance minister at the time, told the Commons in April 2006 the new PBO "would provide a financial reality check on the nation's finances."
"Again, because numbers that have been given to the House in different other settings have been, shall we say, not as reliable as they should be, we will put another reality check and another balance in place," said Ablonczy.
But since then the Conservative government has frequently sparred with Page — with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty going so far as to call him "unbelievable, unreliable, incredible."
While criticizing Page's various budgetary analyses, the Conservatives had never before suggested the PBO had no right to examine the books — until Tuesday.
Page's office wants to know how many employees and what programs are being eliminated under the government's 2012 cost-cutting plan, in order to check whether the advertised cost savings are credible.
But only 18 of 82 federal organizations complied with his request for more details. The powerful Clerk of the Privy Council then informed Page no more information would be released until all affected employees have been notified sometime this fall.
In the meantime, the Conservative majority voted the budget implementation bill through the House this week, with Senate approval pending.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called Baird's comment about mandate creep "a warning that Kevin Page has made the ultimate mistake: he doesn't tell the Conservatives what they want to hear and he actually wants to be able to say the truth to the Canadian public."
Bob Rae, the Liberal interim leader, said it was "a smear without substance or foundation" and accused the Conservatives of "cutting away at the authority and independence of the very people that they appointed in the first place."
Baird's office did not respond to a request for specific examples of the parliamentary budget office exceeding its mandate.
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.