coyne: the conflict is between conservatives and their souls

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page's quest to force the Harper GovernmentTM to release details of its budget cuts escalated over the weekend, when Page said that the government's secrecy could lay the groundwork for a future economic crisis. Page, of course, has laid the groundwork for a court battle that may force Harper's hand.

Andrew Coyne, ethical conservative:
The reality is that the PBO has been given anything but the "free and timely access" that Parliament demanded. Time and time again, rather, he has been given the back of the government's hand — stonewalled by the bureaucrats, ridiculed by the politicians, and lied to by both.

When, for example, the Department of National Defence at last consented to share the cost of the F-35 fighter jet purchase with the PBO, it provided only the most rudimentary figures, without any indication of how they were arrived at. These figures, on which the last election was fought, were later shown to understate the true costs of the jets by at least 40 per cent and probably 60 per cent, in violation not only of Treasury Board rules but the department's own stated policies. For the crime of having been right, the PBO was subjected to a volley of ministerial insults, while the department pretends to this day not to have understood the office's clearly stated requests.

More recently, the PBO (Kevin Page is his name) has been trying to get government departments to explain how they plan to achieve the $5.2 billion in largely unspecified "efficiencies" pencilled into the 2012 budget. How much of these, Page wanted to know, would be achieved by reducing costs, and how much by reducing services? How would federal employment be affected in either event? In other words, what did the budget mean by "efficiencies"? This would seem useful information for Members of Parliament considering their vote, assuming — you'll indulge me here — MPs do indeed consider their votes.

So, on April 12, the PBO sent a letter to the deputies in charge of 82 federal departments and agencies, requesting such information "pursuant to statutory authority under section 79.3(1) of the Parliament of Canada Act" (the part about "free and timely access"). Just eight departments replied. A month later, Page tried again. Eight more came forward.

Shortly afterward, he received a letter from the Clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters, informing him that he would not be receiving the information he had requested. The reason? The government had certain "contractual obligations" to its unions, requiring it to give notice to those affected before releasing such data to the public.

That's all very well, Page replied, except it's not actually one of the exceptions allowed under the law. The PBO was not asking the government to give him the names of those being laid off: just the totals. For that matter, the unions involved had waived any objection, so long as employee privacy was not breached.

And there things stand. Page has heard nothing further from the government (though two more departments have reported, notwithstanding the supposed "contractual obligations," bringing the total to 18.) This week he released a legal opinion in support of his position from University of Ottawa law professor Joseph Magnet. Again, nothing — except a statement in the House from John Baird, who as the former Treasury Board minister was once responsible for the PBO, accusing him of "overstepping his mandate." So it seems we are headed for the courts — perhaps the only institution of accountability this government does not seem prepared to harass, intimidate, ignore or roll over.

Look: the situation is not entirely unprecedented. Governments sometimes get into disputes with arms' length agencies, and sometimes these end up in court. But "overstepping his mandate," John? The officer specifically authorized to gather information on spending from government departments is guilty of "overstepping" for attempting to do precisely that? The officer your government established? Don't you remember?

As has so often been the case of late, the conflict here is not so much between Conservatives and their opponents. It is between Conservatives and their very souls.
Column here.

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