Information is power — so it stands to reason, perhaps, that the lack of information is powerlessness.
And parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page must be feeling particularly powerless right now.
Monday, Page released a legal opinion that says 64 different federal government departments are breaking federal law because they have failed to release even basic information about $5.2 billion in recent federal budget cuts.
The Parliament of Canada Act requires federal departments to release financial and economic data to Page in a timely way: so far, only 18 federal organizations have actually complied with Page’s requests for information.
“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 obtained by the Canadian Press. “Accordingly, the non-compliant departments have statutory obligations to provide the information.”
Page also wrote to the federal government on Monday, saying, “It is in the interests of Parliament and the Canadian public that such information be made available immediately. … As I have mentioned before, it is only with such information that Parliament can exercise its constitutional role of controlling public finances.”
The federal government has argued that revealing detailed information about the cuts would violate the collective agreements of some employees whose jobs are threatened.
Page says he’s not looking for that level of detail, and his legal opinion backs him up, paving the way for a court showdown that will probably be both protracted and expensive.
And, by the way, the legal costs and court costs for both sides will be paid for by taxpayers.
If the Harper government was interested in being halfway reasonable, it could just find a way to release the information without trampling on bargaining concerns.
But that, of course, would make way too much common sense to even be considered in the hyperpartisan world that federal politics now occupies — a world where, in almost every instance, it seems, any means is justified by the ideological end it serves.
Interestingly, Page argues the information he is looking for can’t be withheld under the claim it is cabinet confidences, either — because the information he’s looking for would not exist solely in cabinet documents.
If Page were the budget officer for Newfoundland and Labrador, he wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on — at least, not anymore.
After changes to this province’s legislation last week, even an officer of the House of Assembly wouldn’t be able to get his hands on documents that had been anywhere close to the provincial cabinet.
It’s a lesson more and more governments seem to be absorbing across this nation: you never have to justify your actions, especially if you can make it difficult or even impossible for anyone to know what those actions are.