The Bloc Québécois is claiming that "grey zones" in the rules of the House of Commons allowed the party to use parliamentary resources for partisan purposes.
The Bloc Québécois is scrambling to defend former leader Gilles Duceppe's controversial decision to use his parliamentary budget to pay the salary of his party's director-general for seven years, starting in 2004.
In a bid to deflate a week-long controversy over the payroll matter, Mr. Duceppe released a legal opinion on Monday stating that House rules clearly state that parliamentary resources can be used for partisan purposes. In addition, the legal opinion states that "the act of paying a party's director with parliamentary funds is not prohibited in any text."
Bloc MP Louis Plamondon explained afterward that it is impossible to create a clear separation between parliamentary and partisan activities. He added that the Bloc will gladly adapt to any changes to the rules of the House of Commons.
"If this current grey zone is deemed to be unacceptable, we would agree with proposals to tighten up the criteria," Mr. Plamondon told reporters. "We've respected all of the rules."
He warned that other parties are also facing similar touchy situations and that a wider debate might be needed.
"The Prime Minister has named the chief Conservative fundraiser and four other major bagmen to the Senate, who are paid with public funds to engage in partisan politics," Mr. Plamondon said.
The NDP has been highly critical of the Bloc's decision to put its director general on the House payroll. Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel said on Monday that the party is making sure that no one is getting paid by the public purse for his or her work on the current NDP leadership race.
"The staff that want to work on the campaign have two choices: either they take time off for the duration of the race or they work on it outside of their business hours. It's clear and being enforced," Ms. Turmel said.
Mr. Duceppe is scheduled to appear in front of the House of Commons' board of internal economy on February 13 to defend his use of parliamentary resources. Mr. Duceppe came under fire a week ago when Montreal daily La Presse revealed that he used his leader's budget to pay the salary of the Bloc's long-time director-general, Gilbert Gardner.
Vowing to clear his name, Mr. Duceppe hired lawyer François Gendron to look into the rules of the House and offer a legal opinion that was released later on Monday. The key to Mr. Duceppe's defense are the by-laws of the House, which state all MPs receive a budget that must "be used only for the carrying out of Members' parliamentary functions." In particular, Mr. Duceppe is relying on the definition of parliamentary functions, which says in article 102 that "partisan activities are an inherent and essential part of the activities and parliamentary functions of a Member."
Mr. Plamondon pointed out that in addition to his party work, Mr. Gardner participated in a number of parliamentary activities in Ottawa, such as attending weekly caucus meetings and playing a role in the Bloc's legislative strategy.
In a statement released on Sunday, Mr. Duceppe said that Mr. Gendron's legal opinion goes beyond the "false and partisan accusations and rumours" that have surrounded this matter over the last week.
In that context, Mr. Duceppe is set to argue that La Presse distorted the facts in its initial story on Mr. Gardner's hiring when the newspaper stated that House rules make a clear distinction between parliamentary and partisan activities. Officials from others parties said they paid their own partisan staff out of their party's budget, and not out of their parliamentary allotments, arguing that the Bloc clearly broke the rules of the House.
In his statement, Mr. Duceppe said that Mr. Gendron's legal opinion goes beyond the "false and partisan accusations and rumours" that have surrounded this matter over the last week.
Faced with a furor, Mr. Duceppe put an abrupt end to his plans to succeed Pauline Marois as the head of the Parti Québécois, vowing instead to fight to clear his reputation.
The House has launched an investigation into the situation and is expected to report its findings this week to the Board of Internal Economy, a secretive all-party body that oversees the administration of the legislative chamber.