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Jul 292013
 
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Harperites act as though they'd never win another election if the voters know what they know.

by Geoffrey Stevens

More often than not, the Harper Conservatives are their own worst enemy. They have only themselves to blame if they are seen by the public as being secretive, controlling, dissembling and hypocritical – even paranoid.

Back in March 2012, they announced a program of massive spending cuts. Federal spending would be reduced by $3.1 billion in 2013, rising to more than $5.1 billion annually in ensuing years. But where were the details? Which programs and services would be eliminated or truncated? Which regions and groups would be hardest hit? Which would escape the axe?

We have a parliamentary budget office and an access law, both of which the government ignores – not because it needs to, but simply because it can.

The opposition parties demanded to know. The government refused to tell Parliament. The Parliamentary Budget Office took up the cause. The PBO exists to assist members of Parliament to understand fiscal issues so that they can vote intelligently on government policies. The office was created by the Harper government in its early open-government phase in 2006, and the Conservatives have regretted it ever since. When the PBO ran into the same stone wall as the opposition, the office took the extraordinary step of suing its own government for access to what is supposed to be public information.

The budget office won in Federal Court on the principle of the matter – “Parliament has no right to ignore its own legislation,” the court ruled – but it lost on a procedural technicality (the suit was not properly worded).

The result: today, 16 months after the cutbacks were announced, Parliament and the public still can’t get information that should have been freely available on the day the announcement was made. The Conservatives, however, act as though they believe they could never win another election if they let the country know what they know.

The absurdity continues. Last week, Sonia L’Heureux, the interim parliamentary budget officer, released a long list of federal departments that have refused to provide information or have failed to respond to the PBO’s requests since 2012 for their spending information. They include National Defence (the opposition wants to know about costs for fighter aircraft and Arctic patrol vessels), Canadian Food Inspection Agency (how cuts there will affect food safety), CSIS, RCMP, Public Works and Government Services (historically, the big patronage department), Fisheries and Oceans, and Transport Canada (rail and airline safety, among other things).

Stymied in Parliament and sidetracked in court, the PBO is forced to do what you and I would do if we wanted information from the government. It is going to file requests under the Access to Information Act (the Harper government’s least favourite law); for a fee of $5, employees of the PBO may, like any private citizen, request documents from a federal department.

Kevin Page, the former parliamentary budget officer, is setting up a new institute at the University of Ottawa to act as a shadow PBO.

Good luck to them. If they get the same lousy service as other citizens do, they may be in for a long wait. This is not new. A Globe and Mail reporter had to wait two years for the documents that eventually blew open the Sponsorship scandal a decade ago.

These days, Access requests are routinely referred to the Prime Minister’s Office for vetting before documents are released. (The PBO’s requests will, if nothing else, give Harper and his staff something to do.)

If all this seems absurd, it is. We have a parliamentary budget office and an access law, both of which the government ignores – not because it needs to, but simply because it can.

Matters have reached such a sorry state that Kevin Page, the former parliamentary budget officer, is setting up a new institute at the University of Ottawa. Modelled on the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the United Kingdom, the institute will produce analytical reports on federal government spending – just as Page did during his five years on Parliament Hill. In other words, it will be a shadow PBO.  Its reports will be eagerly anticipated by MPs and journalists alike.

This is not good news for the Harper Conservatives. Fear of information is rampant in official Ottawa. It has become an insidious disease.
 

About Geoffrey Stevens


Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at the address below. This article appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

© Copyright 2013 Geoffrey Stevens, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca
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