03/21/2013 08:52 EDT | Updated 05/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Budget watchdog's role being debated in court

On the very day budget 2013 was being tabled, Canada's first Parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, through his lawyer, was in Federal Court in Ottawa asking a judge to clarify his right to ask questions about the 2012 budget.

Page was not present in the courtroom Thursday, but his lawyer, Joseph Magnet, argued the statute that created Page's position gives him the legal right to ask government departments for documents and data about whether savings outlined in last spring's budget are achievable.

Page's job is to provide financial analysis to any member of Parliament who asks for his expertise. In the case before the court, the requester was Official Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair who asked Page to determine what kind of layoffs and service cuts might result from the 2012 budget. Mulcair has joined the case as an interested party.

Page asked every government department to provide information about their planned savings, planned personnel reductions, their year over year spending, as well as performance indicators and targets. Many departments refused and several cabinet ministers voiced the opinion that Page was exceeding his mandate. One Conservative MP suggested Page should go online to government websites to find the information he sought.

In court Thursday, lawyers for Page and Mulcair argued that legislation guaranteed Page free and timely access to economic data so that he could do his job.

The lawyer representing the Speaker of the House of Commons, Steven Chaplin, said Page's position was created by Parliament so he ought to make his complaints to the House of Commons, through the Speaker, rather than going to the courts.

Historic ruling

Chaplin brought up the example of a historic ruling by former Commons Speaker Peter Milliken in 2010 on the government's refusal to allow opposition MPs to see documents about the treatment of Afghan detainees. Milliken found the government in contempt of Parliament and ordered the documents to be produced.

Page, argued Chaplin, could complain to the present Speaker, Andrew Scheer, who would send his complaint to a committee that would report back to the Speaker, who would send the report to the House of Commons for consideration. "He [Page] is not independent," argued Chaplin. "He provides independent analysis."

Justice Sean Harrington commented that Page's position was created by a minority government in 2006, and ventured that perhaps the intention was to protect Page from a majority government that might not be inclined to support his mandate.

A key decision is whether the Federal Court even has the jurisdiction to determine whether Page can access the information he seeks, or whether, as the government argues, he is an employee of Parliament and the issue he's raising is a political question, not a legal one.

The hearing continues through Friday. It's not known when Justice Harrington will issue his decision.

Friday is also Page's last day as parliamentary budget officer. He's retiring and the government has not yet filled his position, although there will be an interim PBO.