So the Board of Internal Economy has voted—though, presumably, at least the NDP members of the board disagreed—to demand the NDP repay $1.2 million toward mailouts that were deemed an inappropriate use of parliamentary resources, and the NDP says it will fight that order in court.
The controversy over the NDP’s mailouts seems to come down to particular distinctions about the pamphlets and letters that MPs are allowed to send at public expense. But the whole affair might beg for a wholesale consideration of MP correspondence.
There are several layers to the mailing privileges of MPs. First, they are allowed to print and send four “householders” within their constituency each year at House expense. Second, they can send what are known as “10 per centers”—documents printed and sent to 10 per cent of their constituents. Third, they have what are known as “franking” privileges, which allow them to send addressed mail free of charge anywhere in Canada. The privileges are laid out in full in the Members’ Allowances and Services Manual. (MPs were previously allowed to send 10 per centers into ridings other than their own, but, after much controversy, that practice was ended by a vote of the House in 2010.)
The NDP mailouts in question seem to have been sent via those franking privileges (the total number of problematic pieces of mail apparently numbers more than a million).
So what did New Democrats do wrong? An analysis prepared by House administration and submitted to the Board of Internal Economy—the committee of MPs that oversees House affairs—points to a few issues. ”All of the material includes the website address www.NDP.ca,” it reads. “This is not a designated website for any of the Members sending the mailouts.” Furthermore, “there are number of references to the 2015 election, or making changes of an electoral nature.”
The analysis concludes that, “in short, it would appear that the mailings were not messages from the individual Members as Members, but rather, were prepared by and for the benefit of the NDP as a political party and to advance electoral purposes.” Two sections of the Members’ bylaws are then noted: s. 6 and s. 7, both of which restrict an MP’s ability to provide services for an organization (in this interpretation, a political party).
The Canadian Press argues, with a couple of examples, that there is a fine line here between which communications are in and out of order. A year ago, the NDP complained about mail sent into NDP-held ridings by Liberal and Conservative MPs. Five years ago—before the ban on 10 per centers outside one’s riding—complaints about a pair of mailouts reached the House. And now, in an attempt to defend themselves, New Democrats are pointing to Conservative and Liberal mail.
That House analysis does still point to some specific fouls that can either be haggled over or used to make comparisons.
A year ago, the Globe and Mail argued that we should do away entirely with the mailing privileges of MPs. Duff Conacher now wonders if MP mail might be vetted by the auditor general. I’m reasonably persuaded that there remains some value in allowing MPs to inform their constituents (and even voters outside their riding) about their activities. But I’m also not sure there’s a reasonable case to be made that the public should be needlessly paying to assist an MP’s re-election efforts. The trick, then, could be drawing some line, or series of lines, between useful communication and needlessly partisan communication. We can’t deny that MPs are partisans (nor should we dismiss partisanship as an inherently bad thing), but it’s not obvious that we should pay for flyers that simply hail one side’s leader or that denigrate another. Or, like punishing children for abusing a privilege, we could simply demand that the privileges be scaled back—for instance, eliminating 10 per centers entirely (thus limiting MPs to four householders and the ability to send addressed mail for free).
Perhaps we could design a system in which MPs are only allowed to write to their constituents about their parliamentary activities, initiatives run out of their constituency offices, or helpful information about government programs and the like. (Off the top of my head: What if part of it was a standardized pamphlet that included speeches and voting records?) Franking privileges could be used to send mail to specific individuals about specific areas of interest (policies, causes, etc.). Of course, any system you designed will be tested and any potential loophole exploited. But we could at least aim to eliminate these sorts of things.