New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair is reiterating his party's position that the "satellite" offices set up outside of Ottawa were done transparently.
"We respected the rules as they existed," he said during his testimony at the procedure and House affairs committee Thursday.
The committee was convened to question the NDP leader over controversial allegations that the party used House of Commons funds for partisan activities.
At issue are the satellite offices the NDP set up outside Ottawa that housed political staffers whose salaries were being paid by taxpayers. The now-shuttered offices were set up in Montreal and Toronto, with another about to open in Saskatchewan.
"Our parliamentary staff does parliamentary work. Our party staff does party work," Mulcair said in addressing the concern that staff would be mixing parliamentary and party duties.
He referred to the lease of the Montreal satellite office, saying it includes an annex "where you can clearly see the three closed offices that were for the three party workers — they had separate spaces closed off — and the rest of the space was shared."
Rules were changed last month
But Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth, who often appeared frustrated as he questioned Mulcair, mentioned the optics of the situation.
"Surely, you understand the ethical issues that arise and the poor appearance that arises from having a House of Commons resources working out of a partisan, political office," Woodworth said.
The NDP leader responded that when the rules governing that were amended last month, "it was conclusive proof" that up until then, political staff on the House payroll were allowed to work in a space that was rented and leased by a political party.
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He said that once the new rule was established that prohibited the sharing of work space, the New Democrats complied with it.
Mulcair also said that the offices were meant to offer "better services to Canadians."
"We're innovating. We're working across Canada," he said.
Mulcair added that the Official Opposition's job it is to hold the government to account and "we can't do that if we're here in Ottawa alone."
Changing the channel
The New Democrats also raised the question about whether Conservatives themselves took part in the "co-location" of parliamentary and political offices.
MP Peter Julian, who was filling in for NDP committee member Craig Scott, referred to 7388 Vedder Rd. in Chilliwack, B.C. — an address he said houses both Conservative MP Mark Strahl's constituency office and a Conservative Party office.
Julian was quickly cut off by Conservative MP Blake Richards, who said that there are actually two separate leases at the address — a Conservative Party lease and a member of Parliament lease.
"They just happen to be in the same shopping mall," Richards said.
"So there's a very clear difference between this and what the NDP is doing."
In response, Strahl tweeted that the remark was the NDP's "desperate attempt to change the channel."
The question-and-answer session at the committee became heated at times with Conservative members levelling accusations at Mulcair for rambling on with his answers in order to delay questions.
Mulcair repeatedly used the phrase "Oh darn!" when the chair, Joe Preston, cut him off mid-answer because time was up.
"I must say that in five years of sitting on a committee, I have never seen a witness as evasive as this witness," said Woodworth.
The committee meeting was also interrupted at various times with points of orders from members of all parties.
Points of orders may be raised if it appears that the rules of procedure have been broken.
Mulcair also answered questions on NDP mailings sent out to voters, including in the Montreal riding of Bourassa, before the federal byelections last November.
Woodworth asked Mulcair if he agreed that there's no authority which would allow a party to engage in election activities using House resources.
In response, the NDP leader referred to an apparent comment by chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand, who said the party didn't send out mailings in Bourassa during the writ period.
"That's the best proof we can offer," he said.
Motion to continue investigating
By the end of the session, Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski said he still had major misgivings.
"There is one thing that is crystal clear," Lukiwski said. "There is a huge contradiction in the testimony provided by Mr. Mulcair and documents provided by the House administration."
Lukiwski was referring to a May 9 memo sent to Joe Preston which said the House administration was not informed that Commons employees would be working in Montreal or in co-operation with a political party's offices.
On that basis, the Conservative MP put forth a motion for the committee to continue its investigation into the NDP's alleged inappropriate use of taxpayer funds, including the ability to again compel Mulcair as a witness if needed.
The motion will be put to a vote at the next procedure and House affairs committee meeting.
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