10/30/2012 18:41 EDT | Updated 12/30/2012 05:12 EST

Budget watchdog seeks opinion in showdown with government

Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, is waiting for a legal opinion about the authority of his office's mandate before he takes any action against government departments that have failed to disclose how they will implement the 2012 budget cuts.

Last week, several cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, said Page was exceeding his mandate, and one government MP even suggested that Page could simply get the information he was seeking by going online, as any Canadian can. Last week Page announced that he would take recalcitrant departments to Federal Court to attempt to obtain the information.

Now, that plan may be on hold as Page awaits a definition of his legal status, which he's hoping to receive this week.

Page was also appearing, along with Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, before the House of Commons finance committee Tuesday afternoon to talk about his economic and fiscal outlook update.

The mandate of the parliamentary budget officer is "to provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation's finances, the government's estimates and trends in the Canadian economy; and upon request from a committee or parliamentarian, to estimate the financial cost of any proposal for matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction."

Page sought a legal opinion about the scope of his office when the PBO was set up in 2008, but now he is seeking more clarification in the light of the refusal of some departments to reveal how services and jobs will be affected.

While he's waiting, his website says, "The PBO continues to be open to communications with officials from the Privy Council Office regarding the provision of the requested information for Parliament."

The PBO has published a chart about which government departments are in compliance with his request. Late yesterday, two more departments delivered some information, which the office is trying to analyze before it updates the chart.

Late today, after his testimony at the finance committee, Page said that about 10 more government departments have sent information to his office this week, including Public Safety and Aboriginal and Northern Affairs. In some cases, though, he said, the information wasn't complete. Page has asked not just for spending details but also for figures about employment cuts and the departments' plans to manage service levels in the face of reduced departmental budgets.

Page added that he's anxious to obtain legal advice given that the government's top bureaucrat, the clerk of the Privy Council, has accused him of going beyond his mandate in his quest for information. However, he said, the power of direct request and the mandate of the PBO is in the act of Parliament that created his office.

"This is a big concern for us. We have people working in our office who are working literally through the weekend, thinking about the strategy. We want to get clarity. We won't be waiting that much longer."

Bank of Canada statement

At the Commons finance committee hearing Tuesday, Carney led off with an opening statement in which he repeated his view that the economy is expected to return to full capacity by the end of next year. The Bank of Canada projects 2.2 per cent growth in 2012, 2.3 per cent in 2013 and 2.4 per cent in 2014, Carney said.

Carney also made it clear that although he has just reconfirmed the Bank of Canada's two-year-old interest rate at the one per cent level, he thinks that the rate may have to be raised "over time" in order to maintain the bank's inflation target of two per cent.

Carney was asked about the damage done by Hurricane Sandy, which New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated would cost the U.S. economy $20 billion. Carney said it's difficult to calculate; the value of a lost restaurant meal that did not happen can never be recovered, but on the other hand there is building activity after a hurricane. In the end, Carney said the impact of a major disaster is "relatively negligible."