The entire Liberal caucus walked out on a House of Commons vote Thursday morning to protest an "abuse of process" in the appointment of Canada's new auditor general. By mid-afternoon, the Liberal Senate caucus had followed suit.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's pick of Michael Ferguson, the former auditor general of New Brunswick, has been controversial because Ferguson is not bilingual. Fluency in both official languages was one of the requirements of the position as posted by the government.
MPs were called to the House to vote on a motion that "the House approve the appointment of Michael Ferguson as the auditor general of Canada for a term of ten years."
The Liberals walked out approximately two minutes before the vote was scheduled to start.
"The government unilaterally and in our view illegally changed the rules in the middle of the game," interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae told reporters after leaving the chamber. "Can you imagine what will happen to every other job posting in the public service of Canada if the government of the day in appointing an officer of Parliament says the rules don't apply to us?"
Flanked by his caucus, Rae said the Liberals "will not sanction or legitimize this process by participating in a vote which we believe is fundamentally illegitimate. This process is that wrong and that bad."
Rae said he spoke with three constitutional lawyers overnight who all agree there is a serious problem with the process followed in this appointment.
"I can assure you the battle does not end here. The battle just begins here," Rae said.
NDP official languages critic Yvon Godin said his party wasn't interested in joining the Liberal walkout, despite the fact that the official Opposition also disapproves of Ferguson's appointment.
"I want to make sure that Canadians know which way we vote," Godin said. "They know where we stand on this."
The NDP caucus voted against Ferguson's appointment, but the Conservatives had enough votes with their majority to win.
Both parties are concerned that ignoring the bilingualism requirement in this case sets a bad precedent across the government's hiring practices. They also say its unfair to unilingual candidates, including French-language candidates, who may not have expressed interest in a designated bilingual position, thinking that their lack of language skills put them out of the running.
Liberal senators also walk out
A similar vote on Ferguson's appointment in the Senate was scheduled for 2:45 p.m. ET.
The Opposition Leader in the Senate, Liberal James Cowan, made a speech to oppose the motion for Ferguson's appointment immediately before the vote. More than 30 Liberal Senators were present and left before the end of Cowan's speech.
The vote was called with no Liberals present in the red chamber, and passed easily without a recorded vote.
"We were making a statement of displeasure with the process," Ontario Senator Jim Munson said afterwards.
Ferguson told Senators earlier this week that language evaluators estimated in February he would require 1,200 hours of language training to meet the requirements stipulated for the auditor general position. He's been working on his French since then.
Ferguson will be the only officer of Parliament who is not bilingual.
Rae gave the government advance notice of his party's protest in a letter Thursday morning that asked for the vote on Ferguson's appointment to be delayed. Harper is in France at the meeting of G20 leaders.
Munson said the Senate walkout evolved from "discussions over the last 48 hours" about how Liberals in both the House and the Senate could best voice their displeasure at the government not abiding by its own language requirements. He said it was not intended to be a personal criticism of Ferguson.