Canada's Original Think Tank

Committee of the Whole – Parliamentary Budget Officer

Committee of the Whole – Parliamentary Budget Officer

Committee of the Whole – Parliamentary Budget Officer

Senator Percy Downe: 

Thank you, chair. I’d like to welcome the witness here.

I read your very impressive CV. I’m disappointed you don’t have political experience because I think that would have rounded out your resumé, particularly since you’re dealing with politicians a lot in that office. The difference between the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Auditor General is that individual parliamentarians can go to the Parliamentary Budget Officer requesting certain actions under the act, and that’s why I wrote the PBO over five and a half or six years ago requesting information from the Canada Revenue Agency. I’d like to follow up on the good questions asked by Senator Smith.

My understanding of the situation is a little different than I heard you explain it, and I appreciate you were inside the revenue agency at the time. The revenue agency only gave information to the PBO after he threatened to take them to Federal Court and after I introduced a bill in the Senate demanding that they provide the same information. At that point, the barriers that were up for five years suddenly came down.

The creation of the tax gap is not anything new. Countries all over the world were doing it. The original PBO who asked for the information, Kevin Page, knew exactly what to ask for because they weren’t reinventing the wheel; they knew exactly what statistical information they had. The PBO of the day had a legal opinion. The Canada Revenue Agency had a contrary legal opinion, but it was only resolved at the last moment because of the threat of court and action in Parliament.

So I’m concerned by your statement that it would be mostly acceptable to refer the conflicts to the Speakers of the two houses. To me, that is a dead-end road that would lead us nowhere. Are you prepared, as the current PBO has done, to take agencies to court, if necessary, to get the information requested by parliamentarians and others?

Mr. Yves Giroux: Thank you for your question, senator. I’d like to go back a bit on what happened with the current PBO and his request for information about the tax gap.

The initial request would have sought information by income ranges, and that’s not unusual; when people want tax information, they often request by income range. It is often by quintiles, deciles or percentiles.

In the case of the PBO, the initial request was 3,000 income ranges. So if you take all of the individuals who file zero dollar income tax returns, in a small jurisdiction — and you can think about any of the Atlantic provinces — 3,000 income ranges would have made some individual taxpayers relatively easily identifiable, directly or more likely indirectly, by using other types of information that’s available in the public domain. It’s something that is well known in statistical circles.

So the original request for taxpayer information was aggregated but with 3,000 income ranges was very granular. It would have required significant work by the agency, which is fine, but more importantly, it would have put at significant risk taxpayer records or some specific taxpayers could have been made identifiable.

When we discussed this issue with the current PBO, it was something that he wasn’t pursuing per se. So he revised his request, and that’s on record. He submitted a different request wherein instead of seeking the information that he was initially asking for of 3,000 income ranges, he narrowed that down to 10 income ranges or deciles, and that’s where the solution was found. By asking for something that was really aggregate, we were able to easily provide that type of information.

To the last part of your question, honourable senators, would I be prepared to take departments to court? The mandate is very clear. The PBO has to provide information to departments. When I talked about raising the issue with the Speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate, that would be a last recourse option. But if it’s necessary to bring somebody to court to deliver on my mandate, the legislation clearly says that I would have to do this, and I would do whatever it takes. If it means bringing a department to court, it’s unfortunate, but so be it. If somebody is prepared to go to that extreme case, I too would be prepared to go to that extreme case.

Senator Downe: Thank you. I appreciate your explanation. There are always two sides and sometimes three sides to every story.

Kevin Page originally and the current PBO both submitted the request over five and a half years ago. The rationale for going from 3,000 to 10 could have been done five years ago, and we have the correspondence on the constant foot-dragging from the CRA regarding that. I am pleased to hear you would consider court a legitimate option to obtain the information requested.

I want to emphasize to you the importance of your position for parliamentarians. You come from a culture — and this is why I’m concerned about your lack of political experience or involvement — where transparency is not the default position, where we have, for generations and various governments, restricted information. We have an access-to-information system now where it’s difficult for parliamentarians and average Canadians to get accurate information. We get pages of blanked-out documents. We have written questions in the Senate from departments where we sometimes get information; most of the time, unfortunately, we get words that don’t constitute an answer. You’re the one vehicle, the one avenue under the legislation where any individual parliamentarian, senators or MPs, can request specific information that falls under your act. In this case, as the person who requested the information gap from the CRA, the department refused to give the information. They went against the mandate of the PBO, and the PBO did the correct thing, namely, took them to court.

I’m encouraged by your words that you put on the public record here today that you will take the same action. It’s a very important tool for all parliamentarians to do their job. Thank you very much.