Embattled budget officer's funding frozen

Page stalled in efforts to recruit and hire financial analysts


Canada's new parliamentary budget officer, whose controversial reports on government spending have been at the centre of a political storm over his mandate, is facing a 33-per-cent reduction in his previously approved budget.

The budget office is housed in the Library of Parliament, which informed parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page that his funding would be frozen at its start-up level of $1.8 million and he won't be getting the additional 33 per cent he was promised -- for 2009-2010 --when the office was opened nearly nine months ago.

The budget office was created by the Conservatives in its signature Federal Accountability Act to "bring truth to budgeting" and help restore confidence in the government's books.

Mr. Page has been mired in controversy from the start, locking horns with parliamentary librarian William Young, House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken and Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella for overstepping his mandate.

But opposition MPs quickly circled the wagons around the parliamentary budget office when hearing about the funding freeze.

Politicians are questioning how the office can help MPs challenge the government and oversee spending if it doesn't have the staff to do the job. Scott Brison, the Liberal finance critic, said the world's economic crisis made the office's role more critical to the debate on how to help Canada's sinking economy.

"If the Harper government is serious about engaging the opposition parties in meaningful discussion about the budget, it ought to co-operate fully with the budget office and not attack his office's capacity to give members of Parliament the fiscal information they need to serve Canadians," Mr. Brison said.

When creating the budget office, the government allocated $1.8 million for the first year to cover the costs of setting it up, to be followed with a full operating budget of $2.8 million in 2009-2010. The office now estimates it needs about $5 million a year to keep up with its work doing the financial analysis and advice demanded by MPs. The office, however, has been hampered in hiring full-time employees and has a staff of eight, four of whom have been temporarily borrowed from other departments. Mr. Page had hope to expand to about 15 people by next year.

One official said the freeze would cripple the office and effectively shut it down. Others, however, said all departments and agencies in government were facing cuts or marginal increases and Mr. Page's office was not being targeted.

NDP leader Jack Layton said the budget freeze was a "direct attack" on the office and would slowly erode its capability to do the job and keep up with MPs' demands for information. The government has more than 2,500 employees at its disposal at Treasury Board, Finance and the Privy Council Office overseeing the government's books.

Mr. Page's office is supposed to provide independent advice and analysis to MPs on the nation's finances, its expenditures and trends in the economy. He has reports under way on native residential schools and large information technology projects in government and is analysing information for MPs on economic stimulus, bailouts for the auto industry, federal assets that could go up for sale and the savings from ongoing spending reviews in departments.

The freeze, however, will reopen the longstanding debate on the scope of Mr. Page's mandate. Mr. Page has argued the office should be independent, all his reports should be publicly available and any dispute over his mandate should be resolved by a parliamentary committee.

The office has been a thorn in the government's side with its controversial Afghanistan report in the middle of the federal election and its recent report questioning the rosy surplus projections of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's economic statement.

His biggest battle, however, has been an ongoing feud between his office, Mr. Young, Mr. Milliken and Mr. Kinsella.

Mr. Young had earlier sought a clarification of Mr Page's role from the two Speakers. They decided Mr. Page was overstepping his mandate and wasn't an independent officer, but was an employee of the library. They said Parliament didn't intend to put the office "at the centre of parliamentary or public debates or to impinge on parliamentarians constitutional function of overseeing the executive."


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