Not quite transparent: Tories reject almost half of PBO information requests

The Conservative Party brand was built on ethics and transparency.

After more than a decade of the Liberal government scandals, the Tories came to power with a promise to clean up the mess in Ottawa.

They were going to be open, honest and transparent.

I think it's fair to say, however, that brand has been tarnished.

This is a government that has — fairly or not — been labelled as secretive for allegations about muzzling scientists, for their affinity to withhold documents from journalists on Access to Information requests and for withholding information from Parliament.

And then there's their ongoing battle against the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer — an office which they, ironically, created to make government more transparent.

Much has been written about the tussle between the government and former PBO Kevin Page. Page, the first Parliamentary Budget Officer, quickly became the biggest thorn in Harper's side. Page was often at odds with the government over what he said was their unwillingness to provide him with complete financial and economic data.

According to a new report by the Chronicle Herald, the battle is continuing with the new PBO, Jean-Denis Frechette.

The federal government has refused to fully comply with almost half of all information requests from Canada’s budget watchdog.

The Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer has requested data 360 times since the Conservatives created it in 2006.

The Parliament of Canada Act decrees the office must have 'free and timely access to any financial or economic data' it needs to fulfil its mandate.

But the government has refused to hand over some or all of the requested data in 170 cases, said the office.

The Chronicle Herald also notes that in 122 of those cases, the government claims that they didn't provide the information because it was beyond the PBO's mandate.

"Departments provide the parliamentary budget officer with the information that is in line with his mandate," a spokesperson from the Treasury Board told the Herald.

[ Related: What is the Harper government’s legacy after eight years in office? ]

As for Page, he's still trying to hold the government's feet to the fire.

"The transparency problem faced by PBO in its efforts to serve Parliament is real. The control of information and disregard for the fundamental role of Parliament to hold the executive account, by both the government and federal public service, is undermining the very nature of our democracy," Page, who is now the Jean Luc Pepin Research Chair at the University of Ottawa, wrote in an email to Yahoo Canada News.

"The Prime Minister will not take responsibility for the actions of his own office over the Senate spending scandal issue. This is hypocrisy for a Conservative government that brought in the Accountability Act in 2006. The government has made many big decisions from changes to the criminal code to military procurement to changes to Old Age Security to changes in the Canada Health Transfer without any decision support analysis. No white papers so that MPs and Canadians can understand the rationale of their decisions and debate the policy trade offs. In retrospect, we needed a transparency act before an accountability act.

"The House of Common has lost its power of the purse role – a fundamental principle underpinning our Westminister parliamentary democracy. They are forced to vote on authorities for spending and tax changes without the information they need. They cannot hold the executive to account. We send people to Ottawa to represent us but allow the executive and public service to prevent them from doing their jobs."

Incidentally, the Tories were fond of suggesting that Page acted in a political or partisan manner.

Is the Harper government going to accuse Frechette of being partisan?

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The Tories like to call themselves the 'most transparent government in Canadian history.'

But, at this point, I don't think most Canadians believe that.

And for the Conservative Party — heading into the 2015 election — that's a problem.

(Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press)

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