OTTAWA – The revelation that former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe paid a political operative’s salary with taxpayer money has revived calls to open the curtains on MPs’ expenses.
“It’s like the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ from the ’70s: Gentleman, we have the technology,” said Gregory Thomas, federal and Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
“This no longer impractical. You take the contract or receipt, you put it on the scanner and it’s on the Internet for everyone to see.”
Duceppe is set to appear Feb. 13 before a secretive House of Commons committee that reviews financial and administrative matters. MPs on the Board of Internal Economy will ask him to explain why he paid the Bloc’s director general with his parliamentary budget for more than six years.
Duceppe fired off a legal opinion Monday defending his decision to pay Gilbert Gardner with the public purse.
Montreal lawyer Francois Gendron argued the board’s bylaws governing MPs’ budgets do not explicitly state that the funds cannot be used to pay for a political operative, pointing to a description of parliamentary functions that includes the phrase “partisan matters.”
Duceppe’s lawyer also says that if having the state finance political activities is so inappropriate, why has the government been giving per-voter subsidies to the parties and tax rebates to MPs for their electoral expenses?
Attached to the legal opinion is a 2004 copy of a letter to Gardner from the Commons pay and benefits office outlining his payments. Gendron says nobody ever raised an eyebrow over the hiring, even though Gardner was widely known to work for the party.
But other elements of the rules for MPs do speak to the issue of partisan activities. For example, they cannot use their budgets for soliciting political memberships, hospitality expenses for partisan events, or campaign material.
Duceppe abandoned a bid to oust Pauline Marois at the helm of the Parti Quebecois last week, shortly after La Presse newspaper published details of the payments to Gardner.
Liberal Leader Bob Rae said Duceppe should be given the chance to explain his actions, but on the surface doesn’t think partisan activities should fall under an MP’s budget.
“It’s clear to me that there’s a difference with an MP who travels and delivers a political speech, that’s what we do. A leader does the same thing,” Rae said.
“But … to have the House of Commons pay directly for a party’s costs, that is a practice that I never thought was appropriate.”
The taxpayers federation is now awaiting the results of an auditor general survey of House of Commons management and administrative practices. Part of that will include a sampling of some MPs’ expenses.
That general audit occurred only after public pressure — few MPs or the Conservative government embraced the idea, and disagreed that the auditor general had the power to audit Parliament.
Right now, all that is available for public viewing is a general breakdown of how individual MPs spent their budgets by category — not the specifics on who they paid.
“I think sooner or later, Parliament’s going to have to conform to the Access to Information Act. Those days of Parliament being able to say we’re exempt from the laws are drawing to a close because it’s clearly outrageous,” said Thomas.
In Nova Scotia, an audit of the expenses of provincial members exposed massive abuse. Some of the purchases included big-screen TVs, generators, and custom furniture.
A year ago, police laid charges against members of all three political parties for fraud, theft, breach of trust and forgery.
In the United Kingdom, four MPs and two members of the House of Lords were jailed in an expenses scandal. Most of those cases involved improperly claiming mortgage or rental expenses.