Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is directed to the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Last evening, the President of the Treasury Board, Minister Day, testified at the Finance Committee and explained how government departments are being asked to hold the line on budgets and expenditures.
However, the Privy Council Office, the department for which the Prime Minister is directly responsible, is estimated to have increased its budget by almost 22 per cent, or more than $13 million. We must assume that such an obvious and large contradiction in policy is due to extreme need and circumstances. Would the minister please tell us why the PCO urgently needs this money and what it will be used for?
Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, I believe I responded to this question in the past. The budget for the Privy Council Office is directly related to the hosting of the G8 and G20 summits in Canada this year. Therefore, it is in the budget for this year.
Senator Munson: Honourable senators, at the same time government is asking in the Speech from the Throne for restraint, we see this increase. The minister said last week that the Minister of Finance and the President of the Treasury Board intend to ask each department to manage their respective departmental budgets, but that is as far as she has gone.
My question is, basically, what the money will be used for in the interest of being open, accountable and transparent. We should know how that additional $13 million will be spent. Is the Prime Minister exempt from this practice?
Senator LeBreton: If honourable senators were to look over recent years — and I think there have been news reports of this — the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office have actually reduced their budgets. When that story came out, we were accused of not having a vision and, therefore, not needing the money. This is the kind of nonsense with which we put up.
Senator Munson would clearly be aware of this, as he was a member of the Prime Minister’s staff and worked closely with the Privy Council Office. I believe he was in one of those positions when the Prime Minister and the government hosted the G8 summit in Kananaskis.
I would probably have to explain to many people the various budgetary requirements involved in hosting the world and, in this case, Canada is hosting not only the G8 but also the G20 meetings. I should not have to explain this to Senator Munson because he was in the Prime Minister’s Office and would understand exactly the extra expenses that are required to act as host to these meetings.
Senator Munson: The minister uses the word “nonsense,” and that answer is a wee bit of nonsense in its own right. The minister is telling me, then, in terms of the clear facts, that the $13 million will be used around the upcoming meetings. Can the leader tell me if the $13 million will be used for communications and so on? I am just asking for facts.
Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, it is obvious that the Prime Minister and all ministers of the government have been careful with the taxpayers’ dollars in a host of areas.
It is a legitimate question, and the Privy Council Office, specifically in their budgeting, is accounting for the expenses that will be necessary for Canada to host the G8 and G20 meetings.
Honourable senators, I will seek further information for the honourable senator to quell any concerns he may have that this money is not being put to good use, although I can assure him it will be.
Senator Munson: Honourable senators, I want to thank the minister for that answer. She has become more specific and I appreciate that.
Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Canada’s interim Information Commissioner recently announced that she will be launching an investigation into political interference with access to information requests in the Department of Public Works and two other departments. Canadians were promised accountability and transparency by this government and are, frankly, outraged that individuals and media must wait five to six months to have an information request answered when the standard waiting time is 30 days or less. I am sure Senator Wallin and Senator Duffy would understand and join me in this concern. Even more so, Canadians are outraged when political staffers override the due diligence of knowledgeable public servants and stop the release of information for political reasons.
Can the Leader of the Government in the Senate assure us that the interim Information Commissioner will have the necessary and prompt support she will need from government to conduct this investigation?
Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, the answer is very short: Absolutely.
Senator Munson: I appreciate the honourable senator’s answer, but we know what happens when one speaks up: Zap, you are gone; zap, your credibility is discredited.
An Hon. Senator: Oh, oh.
Senator Munson: We are looking at today. We cannot look to the past. We must look at today’s history. The honourable senator is into her fifth year here.
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.
Senator Munson: Her fifth and last year.
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.
Senator Munson: The names Richard Colvin and Linda Keen come to mind. Does Suzanne Legault, the interim Information Commissioner, await the same fate as those devoted public servants?
Senator LeBreton: Every few weeks, I get ridiculous questions and, of course, that one is right up there at the top of the list.
The fact is that the government and political staff have been warned and told that they are not ever to interfere with the access to information process. This is something that is handled by public servants. Some of the issues that we are now seeing, such as the Farm Credit Corporation expenses made public through access to information, are of course because our government, in order to open up this process, added 70 more institutions, such as the Wheat Board and the CBC, to the Access to Information Act and are now accountable to Canadians.. This is the action that we have taken.
As I pointed out, I am sure it has created additional work for public servants who handle the access to information requests, but the government is fully committed to the Access to Information Act.
With regard to the present matters that are before the interim Information Commissioner, because they are before the commissioner and she is investigating them, I cannot comment specifically on them. I only reiterate that the government totally supports the work of the Information Commissioner.
Senator Munson: Honourable senators, the leader may use the phrase “ridiculous questions,” but I want to tell her that I sincerely appreciated her two candid answers. I thank the honourable senator.