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Budget watchdog fights federal government secrecy

OTTAWA -- A legal opinion prepared for Parliament's budget watchdog says 64 federal government departments and agencies are breaking the law by not handing over basic information about $5.2 billion in budget cuts.

Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page has been skirmishing with the federal bureaucracy since the March budget, arguing he needs to have certain details about the planned cuts in order to do his job.

He says only 18 of 82 federal organizations have complied with his request for more details about the fiscal impact of cuts stemming from the 2012 budget.

"The information should have been provided as requested and both your department and the other departments that have not complied are in violation of the legal obligations under the (Parliament of Canada) Act," Page wrote in a letter to Wayne Wouters, the clerk of the Privy Council. Wouters is the federal government's top civil servant.

A review led by constitutional lawyer Joseph Magnet from the University of Ottawa concluded that 64 departments were not in compliance with the act because they have not handed over the requested information.

In the legal opinion released Monday morning, lawyers said the act requires the federal government to release financial and economic data in a timely matter.

"No legal exception to this requirement has been advanced and none appears from the analysis of the correspondence exchanged," said the summary of the legal opinion. "Accordingly, the non-compliant departments have statutory obligations to provide the information."

The federal government argues that it can't release details about the cuts because of collective agreements.

In a May 15 letter to Page, Wouters said employees affected by the budget cuts needed to know first, before other information was released. He also provided a "comprehensive summary" of the cuts.

But Page countered that he is not requesting personal information that would have anything to do with employees being laid off or affected by the cuts. And he says the summary information is insufficient. The legal opinion also shot down "cabinet confidence" as a reason for not releasing economic and financial data. It says the information Page is looking for is most likely available within government in many different forms, not just in secret cabinet documents.

"It is in the interests of Parliament and the Canadian public that such information be made available immediately," Page said in a Monday letter. "As I have mentioned before, it is only with such information that Parliament can exercise its constitutional role of controlling public finances."

Page has said he would be willing to go to court over the release of the information. The legal opinion prepares the groundwork for that action.

At stake is the power of the parliamentary budget office, as well as the ability of the MPs to fully understand the implications of the federal cuts, Page argued. Page's office has clashed frequently with the government, with him demanding more information and the government accusing him of reaching shoddy conclusions with the information he does manage to collect.

They have sparred publicly over the cost of the F-35s, the Tory crime agenda, stimulus spending and the reliability of long-term forecasting.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the government is in the same situation now as it was last year, when the Conservative minority was toppled after being found in contempt of Parliament. That was triggered by the refusal of the Tories to come clean on the cost of several major bills.

"The only difference between now and where we were a year-and-a-half ago is that this government has a majority, otherwise we'd be in the exact same situation with respect to the cost of courts and the cost of the F-35s that we saw leading up to the last election," Rae said. "We have a government that is not only in contempt of Parliament, we have a government that is in contempt of the law."

For more from the Canadian Press scroll down The Tyee's main page or click here.

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