Liberals storm out of House vote on unilingual Auditor-General

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Michael Ferguson waits to testify before a Commons committee about his nomination as Auditor-General on Oct. 31, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Bob Rae and his Liberal MPs boycotted a Commons vote that approved a unilingual accountant, Michael Ferguson, to serve as Canada’s new Auditor-General.

While Conservative and NDP MPs stood in the House, the real action was taking place outside the chamber, where an angry Interim Liberal Leader condemned the process as an “abuse” and “illegitimate.”

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Despite the Liberal boycott, the resolution passed by a vote of 153 to 94. The Auditor-General’s appointment must still be put to the Senate, but with a majority of Conservatives in that chamber it is expected to sail through.

“We will not sanction or legitimize this process by a parliamentary vote. ... This process is that wrong and that bad,” Mr. Rae said in the Commons foyer, surrounded by his MPs.

“It is not a normal vote. ... It strikes at the heart of the Canadian identity. Officers of the Parliament of Canada should be able to function in both official languages. That is the view of the Liberal Party.”

The New Democrats share that view and opposed the resolution in the House. Afterward, NDP MP Yvon Godin called on Mr. Ferguson to “rethink” his decision to accept the position, given that as an officer of Parliament he needs support of all parties in the House.

More than the language issue, Mr. Rae said he was duped by Stephen Harper when he was consulted about the appointment. He had simply taken the Prime Minister at face value, assuming Mr. Ferguson was bilingual because bilingualism was a condition of the job.

“I have never been misled to this extent,” Mr. Rae said, adding that now he’s a little wiser.

He accused the government of “unilaterally” and “in our view, illegally” changing the rules in mid-stream. He said the position is a bilingual one, a requirement stipulated in the job description.

Mr. Ferguson, a former New Brunswick auditor, appeared before a Commons committee this week and promised he would become proficient in French within a year. He replaces Sheila Fraser, the popular spending watchdog who made a name for herself with no-nonsense probes into government waste.

Ms. Fraser will be a tough act to follow. So vehement resistance from opposition parties is clearly not a good start for her successor.

“It’s not about Mr. Ferguson,” said Mr. Rae, who was incredulous there was no candidate who could speak both French and English put forward for the job. “It’s about the government. It’s about Mr. Harper. It’s about Mr. Clement. It’s about the fundamental process involved. There is clearly no rule that this government ... is not going to break if it finds it convenient to break.”

The Liberal chief added that he has consulted constitutional lawyers about the situation. “I can assure you the battle does not end here,” he said. “The battle just begins here.”

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