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The Commons: If Kevin Page has overstepped his mandate, maybe it’s time to expand it

The Conservatives are once again reminded of the PBO they promised


 

The Scene. It was just two years ago, Peggy Nash reported to the House, that a Conservative MP was heard to remark that the Parliamentary Budget Officer had “improved the decision making of Parliament.”

But just yesterday, Ms. Nash next recalled, the Foreign Affairs Minister had stood and suggested that the Parliamentary Budget Officer had “from time to time and on occasion … overstepped its mandate.”

Ms. Nash was confused. “Do Conservatives really think that Kevin Page has gone beyond his mandate?” she asked, shrugging and throwing up her hands.

Tony Clement stood here to try to clarify the record.

“Mr. Speaker, let me state right off the top, it has never been the position of this government to interpret the mandate of the Budget Officer the way he interprets his mandate,” Mr. Clement explained, “and indeed, we have echoes of that from opposition members.”

Taking his iPad from his desk, Mr. Clement read aloud. “I recall the 2009 unanimous all-party committee report on the PBO that said: ‘The committee is of the opinion that the PBO’s approach is inconsistent with the Act governing his position,’ ” Mr. Clement conveyed. “This seems to be a general consensus in this House. We simply ask that the PBO do his job, and of course we will do our job through the regular means of reporting to Parliament.”

The sentence cited here appears in this report authored by the standing joint committee on the Library of Parliament. Specifically, the sentence appears under Recommendation 5, which reviews a particular dilemma: that the Library of Parliament keeps confidential its dealings with parliamentarians, while the Parliamentary Budget Officer, which technically operates within the Library, makes its reports public. “The Committee is of the opinion that the PBO works first for parliamentarians and parliamentary committees,” the committee explained, “and it is they who ultimately control the publication of the work done at their request.”

What does this particular issue have to do with Mr. Page’s current request for fiscal data? That is unclear.

Ms. Nash was unimpressed. “The Parliamentary Budget Officer has a legal right to free and timely access to any financial or economic data,” she ventured. “The Conservatives have the nerve to accuse Kevin Page of breaking his legal mandate, even though it is the Conservatives that are breaking their own law by withholding information.”

Mr. Clement was undaunted. “Mr. Speaker, the honourable member is relying on lawyers,” he replied. “We are relying on an all party unanimous report from a committee of this Parliament that said that the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s approach is inconsistent with the act governing his position. We are relying on that.”

Bob Rae dared suggest next that the Conservatives rely on their own campaign promises. “Mr. Speaker, the trouble with what has taken place is that the Parliamentary Budget Officer has asked for information from departments and he has done so according to the act, which was passed by this House, with respect to giving him powers,” the interim Liberal leader posited. “The act, if I may say so, is consistent with the Conservative Party plan that it presented to people in 2006. It said that information from government departments will be given to the parliamentary budget officer in a timely manner—in a timely manner that is also complete.”

How then, Mr. Rae wondered, was Mr. Page exceeding his mandate?

“As the leader of the Liberal Party noted, it was in fact this party, this government, that established the parliamentary budget office,” the Prime Minister congratulated himself, “so this government is more than familiar with its intention in terms of the mandate it set up.”

This was less an explanation than an assertion.

“In terms of specific information, we give information to all parliamentarians on a complete and timely basis,” Mr. Harper continued. “There are a number of means through which we do that and we will continue to do so.”

Never mind now what precipitated the last election.

As luck would have it, the House of Commons now has another report from another joint standing committee to review: this one recommending that a study be undertaken to consider, among other things, whether the Parliamentary Budget Officer should be a full officer of Parliament, similar to the auditor general. “The Committee believes that the work of the PBO has been useful for members of Parliament and for standing committees,” the committee reports, “and that having this office located within the Library of Parliament has created unnecessary confusion in its mandate.”

Both the New Democrats and Liberals are calling for a stronger PBO. If Mr. Harper and Mr. Clement are so concerned about the office’s mandate, they now have a perfect opportunity to remedy the situation.

The Stats. Trade, five questions. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, the environment and immigration, four questions each. The coast guard, the military and employment, three questions each. Health care, employment, veterans and seniors, two questions each. Ethics, foreign investment, sports, infrastructure and science, one question each.

The Stats. Trade, five questions. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, the environment and immigration, four questions each. The coast guard, the military and employment, three questions each. Health care, employment, veterans and seniors, two questions each. Ethics, foreign investment, sports, infrastructure and science, one question each.

Stephen Harper, six responses. Keith Ashfield, Jason Kenney and Kellie Leitch, four responses each. Peter MacKay and Tony Clement, three responses each. Michelle Rempel, Joe Oliver, Leona Aglukkaq and Ed Fast, two responses each. Pierre Poilievre, Steven Blaney, Bev Oda, James Moore, Gerry Ritz, Bal Gosal and Denis Lebel, one response each.


 

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