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Budget watchdog takes Harper government to court over information request

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has been battling to get details of the federal government’s spending cuts.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's budget watchdog is taking the Harper government to court over its refusal to turn over information about austerity measures.

Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page on Wednesday filed a reference application with the Federal Court seeking a judgment affirming he has the jurisdiction to seek the information.

In a covering letter signed by Ottawa constitutional lawyer Joseph Magnet and Tolga Yalkin of the PBO, Mr. Page cites the "urgency" of resolving the issue quickly and proposes numerous dates for the hearing from Nov. 29 to Jan. 11.

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The budget officer has complained for months that government departments have not been forthcoming with his requests on budget cuts, staff reductions and impacts on services. In response, the government said Mr. Page is overreaching, and that his mandate is to examine government spending, not government restraint.

Opposition leaders said Mr. Page had no choice but go to court to perform his duty, and accused the Conservatives of carrying out a vendetta against the budget officer, a position they created.

"They were boasting about it," said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, of establishing the office to increase transparency.

"[But] they've done everything to shut down Kevin Page since he started in that job. They started playing with his budget, they started making it difficult to hire and retain staff. [Anybody] that dares stand up to them, that doesn't tell them exactly what they want to hear, they will be shut down."

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the government only wants Mr. Page to follow his mandate, which he described as reporting to MPs on the budget process and spending measures.

That's a "juvenile" argument, responded interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae.

"I think it's terrible the way they are forcing an officer of Parliament to go to court to do a job which everybody recognizes he has to do," he said.

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In documents filed with the court, Mr. Page said he seeks to analyze:

"The extent to which the [$5.2-billion in] fiscal savings that are outlined in the government's budget are achievable or likely to be achieved; and the extent to which the achievement of the savings there outlined would result in fiscal consequences in the longer term, and request from departments their planned savings premised on staffing reductions."

Mr. Mulcair, who first asked Mr. Page for the analysis, is named as a respondent in the documents.

Although the budget officer had warned he was prepared to sue the government for the information, Wednesday's action is an intermediate step designed to settle the issue before it reaches the confrontational stage. Officials at the PBO believe the government would not buck a clear judgment of the Federal Court, if it rules in the PBO's favour.

Earlier in the month, Page said that, after months of asking, he had received adequate responses representing 3 per cent of the $5.2-billion in budget cutbacks outlined in the March budget. At the time, he said he would seek legal advice on how to proceed, resulting in the latest action.

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