The Conservatives have made free mail expensive.
Reports that Tory MPs ran up $6.3-million in costs last year by mailing out so-called "ten-per-centers" to people outside their ridings have opposition MPs calling for new limits on the free-mail privilege.
The pamphlets are a parliamentary perk: MPs have free mailing privileges, called franking, that allow them to send information outside their riding. But Conservatives have employed them at twice the rate of other MPs - and used them to take more bare-knuckled political campaigns into opponents' ridings.
"They don't need to use our free franking privileges to carpet-bomb Canada with propaganda. It infuriates me," New Democrat MP Pat Martin said.
The dispute is not over the newsletters that MPs send free to their own constituents four times a year. Parliamentarians have another free-mail privilege that allows them to send mailers to a number of households equal to 10 per cent of the households in their own ridings. They can send them anywhere in Canada, as many times as they like, as long as they change them substantially each time. And parties can group batches of MPs together, combining their 10-per-cent numbers, to send bigger mailers.
All the parties do it, but the Conservatives have taken to it with zeal: Adding up the costs, the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir found that MPs with the minority Conservatives spent $6.3-million on the mailers, while opposition MPs spent $3.8-million.
The average Conservative spent $38,337, including eight who spent more than $80,000, while the average opposition MP spent $17,977. Ontario Conservative Rick Norlock topped the list at $87,749.
"Well, we're in government and we have a message to spread," said Mr. Harper's Quebec lieutenant, Public Works Minister Christian Paradis.
"You know, we're in a very difficult economic context. We make decisions that are sometimes difficult, and there are measures that Canadians must know about, so we're doing our duty in communicating them."
Many of the Tories' ten-per-centers echo their ad campaigns, stating Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is "just visiting" Canada or wants to raise taxes. A recent series targeted opposition MPs in rural ridings for supporting the gun registry.
One sent out by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and other Tory MPs shows a picture of a little girl, with text that says the Conservative government worked to stop criminals who target children, while the Bloc Québécois "prefers candy sentences." A headline said: "Your Bloc MP voted against protecting children."
All the parties have packed political punches in the mailers, but the opposition MPs charge the Conservatives have made them free attack ads.
"Some ten-per-centers I've had simply say this MP is a bad MP. Your MP sucks," Mr. Martin said. "… Save that for an election campaign and pay for it out of your Conservative Party budget, not the taxpayers' taxes."
The mailers serve a more sophisticated function than just spreading a political message. Many of them include mail-back coupons, which are used to compile vital mailing lists on which political parties depend to solicit votes, volunteers and money - and that's hard, expensive work.
The Tories typically ask recipients to choose which party leader they like, and mail the coupon back.
Liberal MP David McGuinty accused the Harper government of "cheating" by using public funds for what he termed political "hate mail," and called for all mailers to be reviewed by an all-party committee of MPs before they can be sent out.
New Democrat House Leader Libby Davies said the ten-per-centers are a legitimate vehicle, when used properly, but there should be a review of what kind of content is allowed, and a cap on the amounts spent should be considered.