Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Court Dodges Page Ruling on Technicality, but Also Hints PBO Can Win in Future

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Court Dodges Page Ruling on Technicality, but Also Hints PBO Can Win in Future

Article excerpt

Federal Court dodges direct ruling on Page


OTTAWA - The Federal Court has put aside for possibly another day whether Canada's parliamentary budget officer has a legal right to demand the government turn over information on its cost-cutting program on a technicality.

But the gist of Monday's 23-page ruling from Judge Sean Harrington suggests strongly that the government cannot use its majority to deny information to the budget watchdog, and that in case of a dispute, the court has the power to intervene.

In his comments, Harrington puts the onus on his decision to decline to rule on the issue squarely on former PBO Kevin Page, who the court said never asked government departments for the information he argues was denied him.

"Mr. Page's application shall be dismissed, not on the ground of parliamentary privilege, not on the grounds of statutory interpretation, but on the grounds of non-justiciability," Harrington writes in his ruling.

"Mr. Page has never actually requested data from any department at the insistence of Mr. (Thomas) Mulcair (NDP leader)," the judge also notes.

"Therefore the questions are hypothetical and I decline to answer them on the grounds of non-justiciability."

But it also rejects the arguments of the government and speakers of the Commons and Senate that the court has no jurisdiction to render an order on the matter because it would contravene parliamentary privilege.

The PBO and the Treasury Board were reviewing the ruling and said they may comment at a later time. Page was believed to be travelling Monday and was not available.

Mulcair, who was a party with Page in the dispute, said that the judge had clearly found that the PBO has a legal mandate to demand the information.

Declaring victory, the government would be unlikely to refuse in the future if the new PBO requests the information, he predicted.

"I think this decision is so solid and so categorical that the Conservatives can't ... continue to shut down the parliamentary budget officer, and that any future PBO will be able to use that judgment to demand the documents," he said.

"I don't think any further litigation will be required, the judgment is crystal clear in that regard."

Mulcair's confidence comes from two paragraphs in the ruling:

"Neither on the basis of parliamentary privilege nor on the principles of statutory interpretations has Parliament reserved for itself the right to answer Mr. Page's questions. That task falls upon the court," Harrington declares.

At another point he states: "Parliament not only intended that the (PBO) be answerable to it and to its committees, but also to every backbencher irrespective of political stripe. In my view, the purpose of the statute is to shield any given member of either House of Parliament from the will of the majority."

And still again, the Harrington leaves no doubt he considers the PBO independent with the right to seek government information. …

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