OTTAWA - Canada's auditor general ought to be able to speak both English and French, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says.
Naming the otherwise qualified, English-only Michael Ferguson to the post last year was — while unavoidable — less than ideal, the prime minister acknowledged in a year-end interview with French broadcaster TVA.
"There was a process, and at the end of that process, I had one name really qualified for the position: I decided to name Mr. Ferguson with his commitment under the circumstances," Harper said.
"But I admit it's my responsibility to avoid this type of situation in the future. I hope that francophones, Quebecers, don't doubt my commitment to the French language and our two official languages."
Agents of Parliament should be bilingual because they are in charge of offices that are expected to function in English and in French, Harper said in the interview.
Judges, on the other hand, need not be bilingual, except in the case of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, he said.
"I think that for someone who is at the head of an organization in our system, he should be bilingual, but that shouldn't be the case for every member of an institution," Harper said.
"Should the chief justice of the Supreme Court be bilingual? Absolutely. Is it necessary for each judge? I don't think it's necessary or right."
The question of whether the nine judges on Canada's highest court should be fluent in both official languages has been bitterly divisive.
The Harper government has defended its appointment of two unilingual English judges to the high court, saying that judicial competence should be the overriding factor.
Harper was criticized for appointing unilingual Ontario anglophone Michael Moldaver to the Supreme Court in 2011, and for his appointment of unilingual anglophone Marshall Rothstein five years earlier.
The NDP, meanwhile, which has savaged the Conservative government for naming a unilingual auditor general, has unsuccessfully proposed a mandatory language requirement for new Supreme Court judges.
The NDP has also proposed legislation that calls for 10 senior officers appointed by Parliament to be bilingual, including the auditor general, chief electoral officer, privacy commissioner and commissioner of lobbying.