The Harper government has bowed to internal pressures and agreed to support an NDP bill that will force all new officers of Parliament to be fluently bilingual.
The Conservatives initially poured cold water on the proposal and said there was no need to change the nomination criteria for the auditor-general, the chief electoral officer and a number of commissioners, including those for privacy, information and ethics.
But public statements in support of the legislation by junior minister Maxime Bernier, as well as behind-the-scenes lobbying by other Conservative MPs and senators, has led to the flip-flop. The pressure came mainly from Quebec, where there was a furor last year over the Harper government's appointment of the unilingual Michael Ferguson as Auditor-General.
The Harper government has long defended Mr. Ferguson's appointment and initially raised questions about the need for the legislation to prevent such appointments from happening again.
On Monday, however, government officials said it is now essential for "parliamentarians to be able to speak in the language of their choice in front of officers of Parliament." Speaking in the House of Commons, Industry Minister and Quebec lieutenant Christian Paradis said the bilingualism requirement is in line with the Conservative Party's long-standing support for both French and English. "Our support for this bill sends a clear message that the promotion of the two official languages, now more than ever, guides the actions of the federal government," Mr. Paradis said.
NDP MP Alexandrine Latendresse applauded the Conservative government's support of Bill C-419, stating officers of Parliament serve as watchdogs on behalf of all Canadians.
However, Ms. Latendresse expressed concerns over the government's intention to add minor amendments to the legislation when it goes to committee, including permitting the appointment of unilingual officers on an interim basis. "My fear is that they will be trying to go around the law by appointing someone on an interim basis for two years, while the person takes accelerated language classes," she said.
Ms. Latendresse added she hopes that the Conservatives will also support a bill being pushed by her colleague, NDP MP Yvon Godin, that would add bilingualism requirements for new nominees to the Supreme Court.
However, the Harper government has shown no sign of accepting that legislation, stating judges are appointed "according to merit." According to the government, the important thing is for Canadians to be able to speak either in French or in English in front of the bench, even if the judges need simultaneous translation to understand.
Mr. Ferguson's appointment sparked much outrage given that his predecessor, Sheila Fraser, was an adept communicator in both official languages. Ms. Fraser's ability to explain her 2004 report into the sponsorship scandal in both French and English confirmed the importance of having a bilingual Auditor-General, according to the NDP.
After his appointment, Mr. Ferguson promised to learn French as quickly as possible, but he has been struggling to speak the language in public. He did not do French-language media interviews after the release of his latest report, and he even switched to English at a recent news conference as he explained his progress in learning his second language.