Parliamentary committees are meant to be a key part of the legislative process.

They examine proposed legislation, public policy issues that may trigger future legislation, and the effectiveness of existing legislation.

How political parties keep house is not normally part of any committee’s mandate.

Why then is the House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee engaged in a micro-examination of how the Official Opposition manages its day-to-day affairs?

The answer is: because the Conservative majority in Parliament, with Liberal support, used a trick procedure to order the Committee to put the NDP under a microscope.

Trudeau’s Liberals have, as a rule, been as critical as the NDP of the Conservative majority’s high-handed and anti-democratic tactics. In this case, however, Trudeau’s people have been the Harper team’s enthusiastic enablers.

An idea that goes back to 2011

And what is the fuss all about?

In 2011, after the election of more than 50 new NDP MPs from Quebec, then Party Leader Jack Layton got the idea that it would be helpful if some of those new MPs pooled their allocations for Parliamentary staff in order to set up ‘outreach’ offices in Quebec.

MPs get to hire taxpayer-paid staff both for their Parliamentary offices and for their constituency offices. What Layton proposed is that some of that Parliamentary staff would not be housed on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, but in Montreal, or elsewhere.

Many New Democratic MPs went ahead and followed Layton’s counsel.

The newly engaged out-of-Ottawa Parliamentary staffers were given work space in Party-paid offices in Montreal.

This arrangement fairly quickly raised suspicions on the part of the other parties. Conservatives and Liberals worried that those “satellite staffers” were not doing Parliamentary but rather “partisan work,” such as selling NDP memberships.

Partly in reaction to this, the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy passed a new rule, this past April, banning the practice of housing taxpayer-paid Parliamentary staff in political party offices. At that point, the NDP MPs moved their people to home offices and Leader Tom Mulcair’s constituency office in Montreal.

Was the NDP totally candid about its staffing arrangement?

That has not, however, satisfied the Liberals and Conservatives.

For one thing, they want to know whether the NDP had been totally candid with House of Commons administration when the Party decided to have Parliamentary staff working at some distance from Ottawa.

NDPers have produced documents and emails that, they say, show they were up front with House of Commons management about where these at-a-distance staffers lived and worked.

The Conservatives have, in turn, produced emails from the Clerk of the House of Commons saying she was never told these folks were not working in Ottawa. And they produced those memos after somebody leaked them to reporters, who happily ran with the scoop.

Scoops are big in Ottawa journalistic culture these days.

NDP Leader Mulcair went to the Procedure and House Affairs Committee last week to clear things up.

His appearance was engaging political theatre, if nothing else. Most observers thought he handled himself well. He was tough and tenacious, but kept his cool and never became that somewhat unfair cliché: “angry Tom.”

The Opposition Leader’s explanation for the fact that some NDP folks had told House officials that MP staffers who lived and worked in Montreal were, in fact, “in Ottawa” was that the “port of entry” for those staffers was, indeed, Ottawa.

They were physically in Montreal, but were functionally part of the Ottawa-based Parliamentary establishment, and they reported to supervisors in Ottawa.

In a world full of telecommuters and homeworkers (or, in the current jargon, “location independent workers”) the NDP’s Ottawa-Montreal arrangement hardly seems abnormal.

Haul out the Latin dictionaries

As for the fact that those Parliamentary-but-not-in-Ottawa workers were based in NDP Party facilities in Montreal — well, Mulcair told the Committee, the minute the Board of Internal Economy made that against the rules, the MPs moved those staffers.

Liberal Sean Casey and Conservative Stephen Woodworth argued that it has always been against the rules to house taxpayer-paid staff in Party offices.

Mulcair countered that the fact that the Board of Internal Economy only made it contrary to the rules a month ago means that it was not verboten prior to that.

He and Woodworth got into a lawyerly duel of Latin phrases on that point.

Woodworth quoted a longstanding House rule that says MPs may share offices with other MPs, members of provincial legislature or elected municipal representatives.

“When a rule has a list, it’s exhaustive,” the Conservative MP argued, and “nothing else is allowed.”

Not so, retorted Mulcair, who then explained: “The rule that you are trying to refer to is usually calle dejusdem generis, but in fact the rule you should be trying to use is exclusio unius est exclusio alterius” — which means that express mention of one thing excludes all others.

The problem for Woodworth and his colleagues, Mulcair argued, is that the Board only very recently made a new rule against housing Parliamentary staff in Party offices, which means that the practice was not contrary to the rules beforehand.

Maybe you had to be a lawyer to get excited by this debate.

Mail-outs at byelection time

The Liberals and Conservatives also attacked the NDP for its use of free MP mailings.

Those mailings that we all regularly receive are routinely quite partisan. But there are rules that say such mail-outs cannot be used to promote political parties during an election campaign period.

Liberals and Conservatives have accused the NDP of using MP mailings as political propaganda during last November’s byelection campaigns. Elections Canada was asked to investigate and, to date, it says it has found nothing untoward. All the suspect NDP mailings were done before the official byelection campaign period started.

This has not stopped Liberals and Conservatives from saying they “believe” Elections Canada is still investigating.

Such is the game of politics. Accusations of wrongdoing, even when unfounded, can reverberate for a long time.

The House is on break now, but this nasty business is far from over.

The Conservative majority will call more witnesses to the Committee, including, possibly, the Clerk of the House of Commons, and they may ask Mulcair to make a return appearance.

The NDP Leader will no doubt be sprucing up his Latin legalese in anticipation of that day.

One fact is not disputed here.

Nothing that the NDP is alleged to have done cost the taxpayers a single nickel. In fact, the full import of what the Official Opposition is accused of doing is negligible.

At bottom, the NDP stands accused of having Members of Parliament’s staffers doing partisan political work.

But that is what all MPs’ staffers, for all parties do, and have been doing for as long anyone can remember.

They write partisan speeches and correspondence, do research to undermine the other side’s positions, establish relationships with influential lobby and community groups, and in every other way possible seek to advance the (almost always) partisan interests of their MP.

NDPers are accused of two specific wrongdoings.

One, they housed partisan staff in Montreal rather than in Parliament Hill offices. And, two, they were not entirely candid about that arrangement in communications with House of Commons administration.

The latter “wrongdoing” — the fact of NDPers telling the Commons Clerk and others that Parliamentary staff who worked in Montreal were “in Ottawa” because they reported to Ottawa — is the one issue that could, in the end, pose a genuine problem for the Official Opposition.

We will have to see what the Clerk of the House has to say to the Committee, if she does get the call.

The Clerk’s name is Audrey O’Brien and she is widely respected.

Today, O’Brien probably earnestly hopes the Conservatives and Liberals think twice before dragging a non-partisan public official into this messy, but quite petty, partisan dispute.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...