In reply to a written query filed by Liberal MP Scott Armstrong earlier this year, the government claims that providing details on how many PMO staffers make between $150,000 and $300,000 per year, broken down by $50,000 increments, would constitute the release of "personal information."
As a result, the response printed in Thursday's Hansard in the name of PMO parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra concludes, it has been withheld, as it could violate "the principles" of the Access to Information Act.
The Act in question does not apply to Order Paper questions, or to the Parliament of Canada at all, which may be why it is so carefully worded.
The government also declined to share any details on whether any staffers making more than $200,000 received bonuses in addition to their salaries.
The question on PMO salaries is among a number that departments are routinely refusing to answer in Parliament through Order Paper questions. Order Paper questions are tabled in the House by opposition MPs and give cabinet ministers 45 days to respond. They're one of the few methods provided for opposition MPs to draw information from the government.
Check each and every electronic device, Van Loan says
In the past, PMO had no apparent problem releasing statistics on salary ranges.
In response to a query filed by Liberal MP Frank Valeriote last year, the government stated that, as of Feb. 1, 2013, the Prime Minister's Office employed 91 full-time staffers, 21 of whom are — or, at least, were — on track to make $100,000 or more, and 19 earning $50,000 or less.
Meanwhile, a seemingly innocuous attempt by Liberal MP Scott Simms to get a list of all software permitted and banned from use on government-owned digital platforms — from smart phones to desktop computers — as well as details on the availability of "open source" alternatives, met an even more inglorious parliamentary fate.
"In order to produce such information to the level of detail requested, organizations would need to manually verify each and every hardware item maintained by the organization," Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said in his response.
"The collection and compilation of such data would take several months. Therefore, it is not possible to produce the information requested within the prescribed timeline."
Andrews and Simms weren't the only MPs left with fundamentally unanswered written questions after the government tabled more than a dozen responses on Thursday afternoon.
In fact, the latest batch of answers reveals what would appear to be an ongoing effort to shut down one of the few remaining avenues of inquiry for parliamentarians hoping to pry loose the occasional morsel of information on the operation of government.
Departments routinely sidestep specific questions entirely on the grounds that the requested information "is not readily available," or "would require manual search and analysis," and is therefore "not feasible to produce."
A lengthy question from Liberal MP Irwin Cotler on Canada's policies on extradition treaties produces the claim that the benefits of those treaties are "unquantifiable."
Later in the same response, the department says the government "has no specific ... definition of 'modernization.'"
Alas for those MPs unsatisfied by a provided response, unlike the access to information regime, there is no avenue of appeal.
The speaker has repeatedly rebuffed attempts to get him to intervene in disputes over the quality of a particular response by noting that there is no guarantee that the answer be a good one, but only that it be provided on time.
It's also worth noting that a search of the parliamentary archives reveals that, while this government is by no means the first to cite overly taxing search requirements or a lack of ready availability in declining to produce a requested answer, it appears the trend is definitely on the upswing.
Between 1994 and 2006, for instance, the expense of conducting a manual search was mentioned in just five responses printed in Hansard, while between 2007 and 2013, the same phrase appears 54 times in reference to Order Paper replies.
Still, judging from the list at the back of the Order Paper, MPs aren't quite ready to give up on their right to ask questions.
After all, sometimes the lack of response is, itself, an answer.