Jean-Denis Frechette: 'I will be tolerant, but I will not be patient'

The new PBO on the possibility of going back to court

As I reported yesterday morning, Thomas Mulcair has formally requested that the Parliamentary Budget Officer return to court to settle the dispute over what government data the PBO is entitled to request to analyze the cuts made in the 2012 budget. Yesterday afternoon I spoke with Jean-Denis Frechette, the new Parliamentary Budget Officer. I’ll post more of our conversation later today, but first, here is what he had to say about the possibility of returning to court to settle the matter.

I don’t comment on the exchange of letters between clients and my office, but I can comment on the decision, Justice Harrington’s decision. Basically, let’s put that really straight at the beginning, going back to court is a viable option. The door is open. And this is my clear position. I will not hesitate to go back to court if need be. The situation right now is that I have already consulted with the legal counsel. We have looked at Justice Harrington’s decision and there is something really interesting in the comments he made at the end, where he mentions specific parliamentary remedies. And he said, in addition to such remedies, ultimately [the Parliamentary Budget Officer] would have had recourse to this court. Those are options. And I want to make sure, and as I said the door is open to go back to the court, but I want to make sure that if I go back as PBO to the court, if the judge asks me questions about did you complain to the parliamentary librarian, did you complain to the Speaker, did you complain to the committee … I want to make sure that I can say, yes, I did. And therefore the door doesn’t close right there. So that’s my position right now. The door is open to go back to court. Maybe there is some work with Parliament to be done. I will not be patient. I will be tolerant, but I will not be patient.

Update 4:56pm. In the interests of fully addressing this matter, I spoke with Mr. Frechette again today to be a bit more specific about the possibilities. A condensed and edited transcript is below.

Q. The concern, if I understand Mr. Mulcair’s letter correctly, his concern seems to be that in going through these parliamentary remedies, it’s possible that his request for information could be either delayed or quashed entirely. That the Speakers or the committee or Parliament could somehow stop his request from going forward. Is it possible that in going through these parliamentary remedies, his request could be quashed?

A. No … the other remedies are there because as I said before, [they are] mentioned in the opinion of Justice Harrington. You’re putting it in the context of Mr. Mulcair and I respect that, but for me it’s more in the context of an impasse. It’s really an impasse. I inherited a situation where all of a sudden, for various reasons, good or bad, I’m not judging that, there was an impasse … I want to solve that. I want to have some kind of mechanism that will be viable, sustainable. Something that will be there and clear and solid for the future. It’s not only for one case, because it’s not only that situation where we have problems to get the information.

Q. I just want to see if it’s possible for you to assuage that concern, because I think the concern he’s expressing is, am I going to get shut down here? Is a joint committee, are the Speakers going to quash this? 

A. The committee cannot tell me what to do with the project. I’m working for parliamentarians … they are the clients and nobody will tell me you don’t do a project for this person. No. The project is in the pipeline. It’s an important project. It has been decided by my predecessor and my immediate predecessor. It is something that is in the pipeline. We are dealing with it. It’s not something that we put on the back-burner. No, it’s there because it’s important. Because according to our operational plan we have these criteria and that project meets all the criteria. The only thing that can happen is that it will take a couple months, the parliamentary remedies don’t work, well, as I said, the option remains to go to court. What you’re talking about here is about the independence. I am independent. The Library of Parliament is independent. I’m within the Library of Parliament. I’m even, I would say, maybe more independent even so because I’m within all this, you know, I’m an independent officer. Nobody can tell me and nobody will tell me, don’t do this for this person. I am the one who will say, I’m sorry I cannot do it for you because it’s not an important project in terms of materiality or in terms of the potential interest. Otherwise, it’s business as usual for me.

Q. Because it’s such an oddly unprecedented situation and I guess to a certain degree it’s not clear [Ed. note: To me, at least.] what the Speaker of the committee or the parliamentary librarian could do.

A. I can use again the example I mentioned about Madame L’Heureux, who complained to herself as the PBO and parliamentary librarian and went to see the Speakers. They were open. They told her, send a letter and mention our names. I see that as some kind of open-minded approach, saying, well, yes, it is a matter that Parliament should deal with. They didn’t say no, no, no, don’t do anything … It was a step. I think we have to go a little bit further and go to the second step and basically what I’m saying is, the expression is you give a chance to the runner. We’ll give another chance to Parliament and then we’ll see, then we will pursue the other avenues, as mentioned in the opinion of Justice Harrington, with the risk associated with that opinion.

Q. So there’s no chance that Parliament could effectively block Mr. Mulcair’s request for this project?

A. The only thing that can happen [with] my plan, working with Parliament and the Speakers, is that, well, sorry, Jean-Denis we don’t want to follow your plan and, you know, we already said once to Madame L’Heureux to use our name and we don’t want you to use the name or to use the joint committee. I will say, okay, thank you, I did my due diligence as I want to do and I’ll say, okay, I’ll use another approach to get the information.

Q. So essentially you would be asking the Speaker or the committee to essentially ask on your behalf or to sort of second your request?

A. Well, I am in the middle of this discussion. It’s a matter of procedure more than anything. We, the Library of Parliament, have access to the committee … and we appear before that committee. So we can talk to them and say, listen, we have this situation, can you help us? And, you know, it’s up to them to have the debate and so on. I cannot dictate to the committee what to do. I’m just bringing an issue in front of a committee … So it’s another tool. It’s a parliamentary tool. And that’s what I like in Justice Harrington’s opinion. He suggested some tools. Some mechanisms or parliamentary mechanisms. And I like that approach. Particularly if there is a good outcome out of it. A positive outcome, long-term, sustainable.

Q. And the flip side of that is that in your mind the Speaker or the committee or Parliament can’t tell you to stop you pursuing this? Stop pursuing this information. Can they tell you to stop pursuing this information?

A. No. I have a project to do. I committed to do the project. If I don’t have the information, of course, the impasse continues. When I say impasse, it’s really like I’m painted in the corner. I inherited that situation. For me, maybe it’s a normal situation. It happened like that, but I’m looking for solutions to get out of that cul-de-sac and find a way to get the information. And again, let’s be clear. I’m doing it for all parliamentarians. I don’t have only one project right now in the pipeline where we have difficulties to get information. Some of the projects we have no problem … Some other projects it’s more difficult to get the information. And it’s for all of those.

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