OTTAWA - The secretive panel that polices House of Commons rules is taking a look at free MP mail-outs amidst complaints over a blizzard of partisan Conservative flyers blanketing Canadian households.
Opposition MPs are calling out the Tories for what they say is an unprecedented abuse of taxpayer-funded parliamentary services - and the Commons board of internal economy is examining the matter.
At issue are so-called "10-per centers" - black-and-white flyers produced on Commons printers that MPs bulk-mail to their constituents and others beyond their individual ridings.
All federal parties use the practice, but the current Tory campaign appears unprecedented in its scope and tone.
At least one recent mail-out in Ottawa clearly appeared to be in breach of the rules governing such flyers.
Critics say the Tory practice is the latest example of a party that pushes every rule to the brink and beyond.
"It's not enough to kill your opponent, you have garrot him at the same time," said Liberal MP Garth Turner, a former Tory.
"They're doing that now with the rules."
Turner equates the flyer issue to the Conservative battle with Elections Canada that resulted in this week's RCMP raid of party headquarters.
"We've never seen this kind of concerted abuse of the system - or use of the system."
Whether use or abuse depends on a fine reading of arcane rules governed by the board of internal economy.
"I'm absolutely outraged at the abuse that goes on on the taxpayers' dime," said Karen Redman, the Liberal party whip and one of two MPs permitted to speak on behalf of the board of internal economy.
Redman stressed she was speaking only as an MP.
"Every party does it, including ours. And I believe this abuse is out of control and my sense is there's no appetite to change it."
Board of internal economy rules prevent Redman from detailing what actions, if any, the committee is taking.
But she noted the 10 per cent rule - which gives the flyers their name and permits MPs free mailings outside their ridings equivalent to 10 per cent of their constituent base - was originally designed so MPs could notify former constituents of once-a-decade changes in their riding boundaries.
The Conservatives appear to be doing mass mailings on a monthly basis.
"I personally have raised it several times . . . and I will continue to because I see this as an abuse," was all Redman would say of the board meetings.
Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan confirmed in a statement Thursday that "the 10-per center program periodically comes up at the board, but I can't tell you exactly what those discussions are, as the board operates under confidentiality."
Van Loan noted that every party mails flyers.
"I also know that the vast majority of our mailings go through this program of bulk mail, so it costs less than a penny per mailing," he said.
Other parties tend to send mailings to known home addresses, which costs 54 cents per item.
"You do the math on which party is the most cost effective in its external mailings," said Van Loan.
But the sheer volume of Conservative flyers, combined with their highly provocative and patently partisan content, is raising eyebrows.
"The cost of Stephane Dion: Higher Taxes, More Debt," reads one such flyer that appeared in mailboxes near Elmira, Ont., recently.
Recipients were invited to check one of three boxes beside a picture of Dion:
-"I want higher taxes."
-"I want more debt."
-"I want a bit of both."
They could also check a box beside a smiling picture of Prime Minister Stephen Harper that states: "I want lower taxes and less debt."
Another flyer that's appeared in ridings across Ontario features a smirking, smoking, beer-drinking, n'er-do-well in a "wife-beater" T-shirt staring into the camera - apparently under house arrest. The flyer accuses Liberals of being lax on sentencing.
A version of the n'er-do-well flyer came to doorsteps in downtown Ottawa recently, under the name of sponsoring MP Laurie Hawn of Edmonton.
"If anything,it kind of confuses my constituents," said New Democrat MP Paul Dewar.
"They don't know who Laurie Hawn is, and it's not clearly marked that it's from the Conservative party."
The return address - postage paid by the government - is CRG Government Caucus Services. CRG stands for Conservative Research Group.
While the flyers sharply attack the Liberal opposition, Dewar and Turner both say the real goal is Conservative party data mining - obtaining names, addresses and e-mails of return senders who can be put in the party database and approached in future fundraising drives.
"They're throwing out a fishing line and seeing what they can catch," said Dewar.
One recent mailing in the Ottawa riding of Tory MP John Baird arrived without any MP identified on the flyer, a clear breach of the rules. But the picayune breach is not really the issue.
Turner alleges the Tories are far exceeding the 10 per cent rule. Turner's admittedly "crude estimate" is that 30 million to 50 million flyers have gone out this calendar year.
The Conservative party declined to comment over two days this week on specific questions about numbers, so it is impossible to verify or refute Turner's claim.
Van Loan's statement said the party follows all the 10-per center rules.
Regardless of rules, it's an expensive practice for taxpayers.
According to Turner, internal House of Commons figures show that Conservative printing costs totalled $3.2 million last year.
The Liberal bill was $1.9 million, the NDP $1.4 million and the Bloc Quebecois $1.1 million, according to Turner.
"The salient question for taxpayers asking over their coffee at Tim's: 'What the hell are we paying $8 or $10 million a year for, so these guys can spit on each other with a bunch of junk mail?"'
Libby Davies, the NDP whip who sits on the board of internal economy, encouraged Canadians who have complaints about any political flyers to write to both their MP and the board.
"We have had some correspondence from people," she said.