OTTAWA — Conservative and Liberal MPs suspect the NDP may try to use a loophole to keep their campaign volunteers on the House of Commons payroll during this fall’s general election.
The Huffington Post Canada discovered that House of Commons guidelines allow for the use of compensatory leave during a by-election or general elections. Elections Canada considers Parliament Hill staff on compensatory leave to be unpaid volunteers on a campaign, and the agency doesn’t deduct their salary from a candidate's campaign expenses.
But that’s something the Tories and Liberals now want changed.
“We think it’s an improper use of taxpayers’ resources for partisan purposes that shouldn’t be allowed,” Conservative Saskatchewan MP Randy Hoback told HuffPost.
“It seems pretty clear that House of Commons resources and House of Commons budgets are intended to support members of Parliament in their role as members of Parliament, not in their role as candidates for political parties,” Liberal deputy leader Ralph Goodale said.
At issue is the possibility that some 525 to 550 NDP employees, who work for MPs on Parliament Hill and in constituency offices, may continue to get paid while campaigning for New Democrat candidates. The NDP used the practice in a 2013 byelection in the Montreal riding of Bourassa.
Hoback and Goodale said their parties do not allow staff to claim any kind of compensatory leave while working on election campaigns. Employees are instructed to take unpaid time off.
When asked whether the NDP planned to keep staff on the Commons payroll during the writ, NDP spokeswoman Valérie Dufour responded that “everything we do is done in accordance with the Members' Services and Allowances Manual, as always.”
The Members' Services and Allowances Manual states that employees of MPs, party leaders, whips and House leaders are “hired to support their parliamentary functions. As a result, during the dissolution period, any election-related work performed by these employees must be undertaken outside of normal working hours (e.g., in the evenings, on weekends, while on compensatory or unpaid leave) and not in the parliamentary or constituency offices.”
However the rules also state that “no employees can undertake, or be perceived to undertake any election related activities.” MPs are also banned from increasing their employees’ salaries or compensating their employees “in any way for any election-related work using House funds.”
Dufour said NDP employees are subject to fair labour practices, including compensation for their overtime. According to the current rules, MPs can grant compensatory leave to full-time employees who are required to work excessive hours or work on weekends or designated holidays. Dufour suggested the Tories and Liberals are attacking labour rights rather than a loophole in the current rules.
“What they [other parties] do on their own time is their business,” she wrote, without answering whether the NDP would keep their staff on the public payroll during the election.
During the Bourassa byelection in 2013, three NDP staffers informed leader Tom Mulcair’s chief of staff that they would take compensatory leave to help the party win the race. (The Liberals ended up keeping the seat.) The employees, David Patry, Anne Marie Aubert and Xavier Peich, received their Commons paycheques, which the party says was based on banked overtime, while running errands and helping the NDP’s candidate. The staffers said their leave was consistent with their collective agreement and had been approved by another NDP staffer.
When the Board of Internal Economy — a secretive committee that administers the House of Commons — studied the controversial issue of the NDP’s improper satellite office in Montreal and determined that the party had broken the rules, Board spokesman John Duncan raised concerns that these three NDP staffers might have also broken other rules by working on the byelection while still getting paid by the House of Commons.
But nothing ever came of it. And Duncan refused several requests for an interview.
The experience left a lot of questions lingering in the minds of Conservative and Liberal MPs who now want the rules changed to ban the practice.
“What they are doing is they are further skirting the rules,” Hoback charged. “It’s just a further pattern of them abusing the system for their own partisan benefit, and no other party has been doing it to the extent or does it like the NDP does.”
Hoback said staff don’t clock in or out, and the House of Commons doesn’t keep track of banked overtime. What’s to stop any or all MPs from backdating overtime for their employees and keeping them on the public payroll while they are out campaigning, the Tory MP asked rhetorically.
“Nothing other than a moral conscience knowing that that is wrong and we shouldn’t do it,” he said. “If you wanted to scam the system, you could scam the system, the way it is set up now."
“The Board of Internal Economy has to close this loophole,” he said.
Goodale said that, in his view, the rules in the Members' Services and Allowances Manual were never intended to allow staff to keep getting paid while doing partisan work on an election campaign.
“This is an attempt by one party to make use of the rules of the House of Commons in order to finance their political operation in a way that is just so brazen,” he said.
“It’s not appropriate, it doesn’t pass the damn smell test,” he said. “The bloody rules ought to be fixed.”
The Board of Internal Economy is scheduled to meet Tuesday.
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