OTTAWA - The Harper government has nixed an attempt to give the federal budget watchdog more teeth.
Conservatives on Wednesday killed a private member's bill introduced by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, which would have made the watchdog a full-fledged, independent officer of Parliament.
The parliamentary budget officer is currently an officer of the Library of Parliament and has less independence as a result.
Even so, the Conservative government appears to want less independence, not more, for the PBO — an office created by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006 as part of his vaunted Federal Accountability Act.
The office's first occupant, Kevin Page, frequently contradicted the government's spending assumptions and cost estimates, prompting Conservative accusations that he had exceeded his mandate.
Page retired in March.
The move to defeat Mulcair's bill came amid reports that the selection committee set up to recommend Page's successor includes Adam Church, chief of staff for government House leader Peter Van Loan.
"It's scandalous," Mulcair said after an NDP caucus meeting. "This is Stephen Harper at his worst."
Mulcair said the selection process "has to be restarted or whoever's going to go into that job will have zero credibility."
In the Commons later, Mulcair described Church as a "Conservative party hatchet-man" and said his involvement violated "the law (which) states that the selection process has to be independent."
Van Loan did not deny Church is a member of the selection committee. But he insisted the law requires only that the selection committee be formed and chaired by the parliamentary librarian.
"The process that has been followed is exactly the same process that was followed before (when Page was selected)," Van Loan said.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement, meanwhile, offered no apologies for the government's refusal to go along with Mulcair's bill to create a fully independent budget watchdog.
"We on this side are not going to vote for a bill that gives the Senate more power," Clement told the Commons.
"Here is a leader of the Opposition who says that he wants to abolish the Senate but the first thing he would do in his private member's bill is give the Senate more power."
Clement later said he was referring to the fact that both the Commons and the Senate are required to approve the appointment of independent officers of Parliament.
"I think that's probably the least honest answer I've heard from a Conservative minister today," said Liberal MP Bob Rae.
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