Taxpayers still paying for NDP staff
By Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA - New Democrats are still using parliamentary resources to pay for 14 employees working in Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto.
And NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says he intends to hire one more taxpayer-funded staffer to work in Saskatchewan, where the party has no MPs.
However, the staffers are now working from their homes, rather than in satellite offices paid for by the party — a move Mulcair insisted is in line with new rules governing staff on the House of Commons payroll who work outside the parliamentary precinct or MPs' constituency offices.
"I'm allowed to do that," Mulcair said after a caucus meeting Wednesday.
"We have people in Quebec City. We have people in Montreal. We have people in Toronto. The only thing that's changed is now the rule has been amended to say that the party can't pay for that office. We're going to follow that new rule."
A spokesperson for Mulcair later said there are 10 staffers in Montreal, two in Quebec City and two in Toronto, all of whom are now working from their homes and remain on the Commons payroll, their salaries funded by New Democrat MPs pooling their office budgets.
That the 14 employees are still on the Commons payroll reflects Mulcair's decision to double down on his assertion that the party has done nothing wrong, even as he prepares for an unprecedented two-hour grilling on the subject Thursday by the Commons procedure and House affairs committee.
Having the staffers work from home strictly adheres to the letter of the provisional bylaw adopted last month by the secretive, all-party board of internal economy, which oversees administration of the Commons.
The bylaw prohibits MPs from using their Commons budgets to pay staff who work out of premises "owned, leased or under the control of a political party."
However, the home-work arrangement appears to fly in the face of another bylaw, which the states that MPs can use their Commons budgets "to hire employees for the Member's Parliamentary office or constituency office." It does not mention any other options.
The board is continuing to investigate the broader issue of the NDP's use of parliamentary resources to pay for staff "in offices outside the parliamentary precinct or constituency offices," according to a missive issued last month by the board's chair, Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer.
The investigation was prompted by Conservative and Liberal complaints that the NDP was using parliamentary resources to pay for what amounts to partisan field workers.
Mulcair continued to vehemently deny Wednesday that the staffers are involved in any partisan activity and his office supplied internal NDP job postings to back up his assertion.
The responsibilities listed for various job openings in Montreal include maximizing "caucus visibility" and advancing the NDP's "parliamentary goals and agenda."
However, under the qualifications listed for "outreach officers," one job posting states that "campaign experience (is) required." Another lists "experience in outreach, event planning, election or issue based campaigns."
Nevertheless, Mulcair insisted none of the Commons-paid staffers have engaged in partisan activity. He equated the use of satellite offices to regional offices set up by cabinet ministers.
Indeed, he argued that the NDP's arrangement is a better use of taxpayers' money than hiring employees in Ottawa and paying the cost of their travel to outlying areas — as other parties do.
While he expects to be grilled by rival parties at committee Thursday, he added: "I'm going to have some questions for them because they're going to be telling you that the best use of taxpayers' money is to pay people to travel back and forth from Ottawa to Montreal.
"We're saying that the best use of taxpayers' money and the most efficient use is to base those people in Montreal."
Taking advantage of a brief shortage of NDP MPs in the Commons last month, the Conservatives employed an obscure procedural manoeuvre to pass a motion ordering Mulcair to explain his party's use of parliamentary resources to the procedure and House affairs committee.
No opposition leader in Canadian history has ever before been ordered to appear before a committee, according to the Library of Parliament.
Mulcair's appearance Thursday is bound to be a partisan gang up, with both the Liberals and Conservatives doubtless hoping not only to tar the NDP leader with unethical conduct but to provoke him into losing his temper — reinforcing their preferred depiction of him as "angry Tom."
Since becoming leader two years ago, Mulcair has taken pains to soften his combative image. But he could barely restrain his anger Tuesday and again Wednesday when he was grilled at length by reporters on the satellite office issue.
He got into hostile exchanges with several reporters, accusing one of fabricating information and of repeatedly ignoring facts that prove the NDP did nothing wrong.
Documents provided to the committee by the Commons administration suggest officials had no idea New Democrats were using their office budgets to pay for employees who were not working on Parliament Hill. Employment forms filled out by the party's MPs ticked a box indicating the employees were working "within Ottawa."
However, Mulcair maintains the party never attempted to hide the arrangement.
Follow @jmbryden on Twitter