Liberals promised to empower budget watchdog, haven’t responded to his budget request

April 8, 2016 – Anna Mehler Paperny, Global News

Jean-Denis Fréchette just wants someone to return his calls.

Last week the Parliamentary Budget Officer asked the federal government for additional details regarding its 2016 budget. He wanted that info by Tuesday, April 5 at noon.

The response? Crickets.

Fréchette says he got no response at all from Deputy Finance Minister Paul Rochon, to whom his request was addressed. When Global News spoke to him Thursday morning he hadn’t heard back or received an acknowledgment they got the request.

“That, for me, is kind of serious.”

Finance Canada, for its part, says it has been in touch and is working to fulfill its request.

“The department has been in communication with the PBO regarding this request and is diligently working to respond as soon as possible,” a spokesperson wrote in an email late Thursday afternoon.

(Fréchette said he hasn’t heard from the department, but “has no doubt” they’re “working hard to respond.”)

READ MORE: Watchdog rips into Liberal budget

“I’m not a difficult person,” Fréchette says.

“I much prefer to receive something on the deadline saying, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have the information’; … ‘It’s not in the format in which you requested it’; ‘I’m sorry, I need an extension.”

“I much prefer to receive at least some kind of acknowledgment of my request than nothing.”

And he’s had no problem getting responses from other federal departments under the new Liberal government: National Defence and Indigenous and Northern Affairs, among others, have responded quickly, he says.

Fréchette published a scathing report Wednesday on the budget’s opacity, which he said makes it tougher for parliamentarians to scrutinize government spending.

“They should show the complete global picture of their fiscal plan,” he said Thursday.

“That would have helped parliamentarians and ourselves to do a better analysis.”

Everyone knows future numbers are estimates, he says: “They will change. That’s not a problem. But … you want to have some kind of sense of where you’re going to be in five years.”

Transparency’s particularly crucial in the Liberals’ first budget, Fréchette said.

“At the beginning of a new government, they should show the complete, global picture — just to establish some kind of … transparency. To be really clear about the objectives they want to achieve.”

The Liberals ran on a platform of openness, promising to give the Parliamentary Budget Officer independence and teeth he currently lacks.

They also promised to reform the 33-year-old Access to Information Act. That’s now slated to begin in 2018.

“I’m not furious. I’m just surprised … because I was expecting to have all the information for the five years,” Fréchette said.

Government transparency, especially when it comes to money, has been an issue in the past.

The federal Conservatives created the Parliamentary Budget Officer, a promise of their 2006 campaign. Years later, that officer — Fréchette’s predecessor Kevin Page — took them to court over their refusal to divulge financial information.

But in some ways this Liberal budget is less transparent than its Tory predecessors, Fréchette said.

“The previous government had an objective. They showed it in the budget.

“If this government has a five-year objective … they should indicate all the measures there would be.”

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