One of the most fascinating political stories playing out in Ottawa these days is a behind-the-scenes investigation of allegations that prior to the last election, the Bloc Québécois misused its parliamentary budget for party expenses.
If deemed true, the separatist party that has been a fixture in the House of Commons since 1993 could have to pay back as much as $1 million.
It would be a serious blow to any hopes for resurrection for a party that was reduced to just four seats from 49 in the May 2 election, lost its official party status in the Commons and has always depended on Canadian taxpayer subsidies rather than supporter donations for its funding.
By 2015, those taxpayer subsidies will end under Conservative legislation.
The issue is being investigated by the secretive House of Commons Board of Internal Economy chaired by speaker Andrew Scheer and including representatives of official parties — Conservatives, the New Democratic Party and the Liberal Party.
The BQ no longer is represented.
Last week, former BQ leader Gilles Duceppe, who lost his own seat in the election, appeared before the Board of Internal Economy to explain why for seven years, the BQ used parliamentary funds to pay $100,000 annually to the party’s Montreal-based director general.
Duceppe insists it was legal under Commons rules allowing some parliamentary funds to be used for “partisan” purposes.
The all-party members of the board apparently did not think it was so clear-cut.
After the Feb. 13 private meeting with the former BQ leader, it issued a brief statement.
“As a result of his appearance and information provided, many additional questions have been raised,” it said. “The board will be continuing and expanding its review of the matter.”
This cannot be good news for the reeling party that came to Ottawa to help prepare the way for Quebec separation, promising just a brief stay in the foreign capital until Quebec was free.
Instead, Bloc MPs have been in the federal Parliament as a party more than 18 years and in an irony of Canadian politics, BQ MP Louis Plamondon now is the ‘dean’ of the Commons as its longest-serving member, having been first elected as a Conservative in 1984.
The stakes are high for the party that dreams of a comeback in 2015 if NDP popularity has waned.
Paying back up to a million dollars would deplete its election fund.
And a parliamentary ruling that there was misuse of parliamentary funds could put a serious dent in the regular Bloc argument that it is far more ethical, reflecting Quebec values, than the Canadian political establishment it opposes.