The PBO vs. DND

Why can’t the Parliamentary Budget Officer get the information it wants?

Blair Gable

Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette

During question period on Tuesday afternoon, Liberal MP Joyce Murray asked Jason Kenney, the brand-new minister of National Defence, to account for the fact that the department he is now in charge of had refused to comply with requests from the Parliament Budget Officer for information related to the mission in Iraq.

“Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives refused for four months to provide Canadians with any information at all about the cost of the Iraq mission, so I asked the Parliamentary Budget Officer for help. According to the PBO, they then illegally ‘refused all PBO requests for specific data on this mission,’ ” she said. “Yesterday, the minister added insult to this secrecy and deception by slapping down a single cost number—no detail, no analysis, just an end run of the PBO’s report released today. Does the minister not believe Canadians have the right to be respected and to have real cost information on this important mission?”

The government’s relative willingness to release information to the PBO—an office this government established—seems like a legitimate concern. But the Defence minister seemed uninterested in engaging with this particular matter.

“An important mission that the Liberal Party opposes, Mr. Speaker,” Kenney retorted. “This government committed from the beginning that we would release the costs in the appropriate and normal parliamentary method, which we have done. It will be tabled this week as part of the supplementary estimates C, $122 million is the incremental cost associated with operation IMPACT.”

The minister then sought to clarify for viewers what should actually be the focus of their attention. “The real issue is why the Liberal Party has turned its back on decades of responsible internationalism, and a party that used to stand for national security is now standing against our efforts to protect Canadians in opposing the genocidal terrorist organization, ISIL,” he said. “We are proud of what our men and women in uniform are doing to combat that organization.”

As good as it is to know that the government remains supportive of our troops, this issue of the government’s regard for the PBO should not be disappeared down the memory hole without at least a moment’s thought.

The story today might have otherwise been that the government’s costing and the PBO’s estimate were vaguely in line with each other. Unfortunately, the fourth paragraph of the PBO’s report reads as follows:

PBO made a number of information requests to the Department of National Defence (DND) to facilitate this analysis. While DND provided an up-to-date version of its Cost Factors Manual 2014-15, it refused all PBO requests for specific data on Operation IMPACT. Several of these refusals appear to breach DND’s legal obligations under the Parliament of Canada Act. Information that would have been helpful for PBO analysis was also denied to parliamentarians in the context of Order Paper questions. Much of the uncertainty in this report’s estimate of the cost of Operation IMACT arises from DND’s withholding of information.

In response, the Department of National Defence invokes the legal exemptions provided for what are known as cabinet confidences, that which the cabinet is allowed to keep to itself for the purposes of allowing “full and frank discussions” among ministers:

The Department of National Defence has, and will continue to provide the PBO with information that he needs to do his job, within the mandate Parliament has given him.

As per our correspondence with the PBO on December 23, 2014, some of the information requested was deemed to be Cabinet Confidence and could not be released at that time.

We remain committed to ensuring that Parliament is informed of the costs associated with the mission, which will continue to be reported through the usual parliamentary process.

The Department of National Defence refusing to co-operate with the PBO is not quite a new story. The government’s refusal to provide the PBO with information is an even older story.

On this assertion of cabinet confidence, the PBO wrote (pdf) to the deputy minister at Defence in November to argue that such an exemption should not apply. The deputy minister doesn’t seem to have engaged the PBO’s arguments in his response (pdf). The PBO is making very specific arguments about the applicability of cabinet confidence, and those arguments would seem to deserve direct answers.

At page seven of the PBO’s latest report, there is a summary of the office’s information requests, including this explanation and counterpoint:

PBO requested this information by October 31, 2014. On November 4, 2014, Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance confirmed that the Canadian Joint Operations Command had provided the Government with “an estimate of [the cost of] operations over the course of six months.”12 DND has repeatedly refused to provide that estimate, claiming it as a Cabinet confidence.13 The estimate is not a Cabinet confidence because it provides the factual basis for a decision that has been made, and, regardless, PBO is entitled to the information contained in Cabinet confidences provided the information appears in any other document.

If there is a rebuttal to that, it’d be fun to hear it.

(Oddly enough, the Conservative party promised in 2006 that, if the Conservatives formed government, the information commissioner would be given the power to review claims of cabinet confidence.)

This latest dispute might be added to the discussion of how the parliamentary budget officer should be, or we could just all agree that we are better off with independent analysis and costing of government initiatives and legislation and that the parliamentary budget officer is a useful construct for acquiring such accountability. And that, in that regard, it is worrisome when the office’s requests for information are denied.

This particular dispute between the PBO and the government will no doubt be forgotten by next week, perhaps to be recalled in passing when this country’s mission in Iraq next becomes a matter of some debate. But the situation and future of the PBO is a live issue, whether we notice it or not—the PBO continuing on and the changes that might be made to further empower it unmade, unless and until Parliament decides otherwise.

Of course, we might even push all that aside and agree that, regardless of the PBO, Parliament should be entitled at all times to an estimate of the cost of a military mission—and that the government shouldn’t be able to casually dismiss such an idea. As if a government should be accountable for everything it does with public funds and resources.

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