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Flaherty delivers harshest criticism yet of federal budget watchdog

Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty takes part in a press conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, January 16, 2013.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says the government isn't happy with the work of the Parliamentary budget watchdog – the clearest indication yet that Ottawa is rethinking the post as Kevin Page prepares to leave.

Mr. Page, 55, who has sparred with the government over budget cuts and the cost of F-35 fighter jets, is due to leave in March at the end of his five-year term as the government's first Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Speaking Sunday on Global TV's The West Block, Mr. Flaherty accused Mr. Page of "wandering off" from his mandate of reporting to Parliament on "how the government is doing" in its budgeting.

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What the government wanted was "a sounding board, a testing board," said Mr. Flaherty, before heading to Davos, Switzerland, on the weekend for the World Economic Forum.

Mr. Flaherty suggested the PBO's mandate should be "better defined."

The remarks are the harshest and most comprehensive indictment of the work of Mr. Page's office, which recently went to court to clarify its power to force federal departments to disclose details of their budget cuts. And they suggest the government may be preparing to rein in the powers of the PBO even as Mr. Page fights in court to expand them.

Mr. Page responded to Mr. Flaherty's latest attack, pointing out that his job is not to provide "comfort" to the government.

"If the government wants comfort, maybe they need more sounding boards," Mr. Page said in comments e-mailed to The Globe and Mail. "I think Parliament and Canadians benefit from a strong independent legislative budget office."

The 2006 Federal Accountability Act, which created the PBO, makes no mention of a "sounding board," he added.

Mr. Page said he's gotten under the skin of the government because of the "timeliness, relevancy and quality" of the PBO's work, not because he isn't doing his job.

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Most disquieting for the government is that Mr. Page's work has challenged its reputation as a prudent fiscal manager. In various reports, the PBO has said the government is overstating the deficit, exaggerating the financial strains on the Old Age Security, over-counting civil servants and soft-peddling the cost of major purchases.

And in his most direct challenge to the government, Mr. Page went to court late last year after most federal departments balked at handing over details about the spending and staffing cuts announced in the budget. In a report last week, the PBO said spending restraint so far is hitting front-line services while back-office spending continues to rise – exactly the opposite of what Mr. Flaherty promised.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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