NEWS
05/26/2017 13:37 EDT | Updated 05/29/2017 08:04 EDT

Liberal MPs offer amendments to controversial changes for budget watchdog

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is backing away from controversial elements of its legislation to transform the federal budget watchdog, with help from a number of amendments proposed Friday by Liberal MPs.

Details of the proposed legislation to change the parliamentary budget office have faced sharp criticism amid concerns the changes would weaken the independence of an agency mandated to scrutinize government spending.

Budget officer Jean-Denis Frechette has said the most troubling changes include proposed limits on the office's freedom to initiate reports; restrictions on the abilities of individual parliamentarians to seek cost estimates; and a rule stating annual work plans be approved by Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons.

Liberal members of the House of Commons finance committee have proposed removing the work-plan approval requirement and allowing a broader scope of what parliamentarians can ask the PBO to study.

The non-partisan PBO is designed to serve all parliamentarians as a check on the management of the nation's finances.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had argued the proposed changes in the initial legislation would provide more resources to the PBO and strengthen its autonomy. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has accused Trudeau of "muzzling" the office.

Following the backlash, the Liberals later signalled they were open to tweaks.

"We welcome the constructive amendments put forward by Liberal members of the finance committee," government House leader Bardish Chagger said Friday in a statement. 

"The proposed improvements to the bill would further accomplish the objective of an effective and independent PBO."

The Liberal committee members also recommended changes Friday to ensure future candidates for the officer's position have "demonstrated experience and expertise in federal or provincial budgeting."

They also added a requirement for any department or Crown corporation that refuses a PBO request for information to justify it in writing.

One of the government's main intentions for the legislation, released last month in the so-called budget implementation act, was to make the PBO an independent officer of Parliament and provide it with expanded access to data.

But Frechette, and his predecessor Kevin Page, expressed concerns in the weeks that followed about several elements of the proposal.

"Those restrictions will undermine PBO's functional independence and its effectiveness in supporting parliamentarians to scrutinize government spending and hold the government to account," Frechette said in a statement earlier this month.

Frechette, who wasn't consulted on the legislation, has said the law would prevent the PBO from making a report public until a day after it is provided to the Speakers or to the parliamentary committee that requested the research.

He has also warned of the risks associated with an added mandate for the PBO to cost election pledges by political parties.

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