Look who's talking (en anglais)

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National Post, Thursday, December 20, 2007

OTTAWA - According to Hansard, the official journal of the House of Commons, Pablo Rodriguez rarely asks questions in English. In the recently completed seven-week fall session, Rodriguez asked only one of his eight questions in English. The other seven were entirely in French.

First elected as a Liberal from Montreal in 2004, Rodriguez is not remembered for asking questions in English during the two years of the previous Parliament, when as a freshman backbencher in Paul Martin's government, he wouldn't have had any opportunities anyway. "I never heard him ask a question in English," says Jean Lapierre, who sat in the Martin government as transport minister and Quebec lieutenant.

On his Web site, Rodriguez lists his preferred language of communication as French, and one of his shadow critic roles has been for la Francophonie. He is not known for speaking English very much, and certainly not known for writing it.

Yet he turned up as a visiting Liberal member of the ethics committee last week, with a line of questioning for Brian Mulroney on whether he had ever lobbied Maxime Bernier, when Bernier was industry minister, on behalf of Quebecor, of which Mulroney is a director, as a new entrant in the telecom wireless spectrum auction. The questions were primarily in English, and they were drafted with lawyerly precision, leaving very little wiggle room in answering them.

The entire line of questioning could have been ruled out of order, since the committee's mandate was to examine "the Airbus settlement" of 1997, not the wireless auction process of 2007. But the Liberal chairman, Paul Szabo, allowed it, and wouldn't even permit Mulroney to read a letter from the committee clerk defining the terms of reference.

Rodriguez had two exchanges with Mulroney, and it was the second round that was quite striking for its specificity in English:

"Mr. Mulroney, you said you made no presentation to Maxime Bernier on the wireless spectrum issue. While he was the industry minister, have you ever had a private or public dinner or lunch with him in Montreal, or any other city? Have you ever met with him at all? If so, how many times, in which city? Have you ever placed a telephone call to him, or has he called you? On any of those, did you discuss the wireless spectrum issue?"

No sooner had Mulroney's appearance concluded than Jean Lapierre went on television and said the following: "I knew all about those questions. They were written by the CBC and provided to the Liberal members of Parliament, and the questions that Pablo Rodriguez asked were written by the CBC, and I can't believe that but last night, an influential Member of Parliament came to me and told me those are the questions that the CBC wants us to ask tomorrow."

Subsequently, a Liberal researcher told CTV's Mike Duffy the CBC hadn't written the questions for the Liberals, only dictated them.

The next day, the Conservatives filed a formal complaint to the CBC's ombudsperson, Vince Carlin. By day's end, The Canadian Press moved the following lead: "The CBC has begun an internal investigation and possible disciplinary process after one of its parliamentary reporters suggested questions to a Liberal MP on the Commons ethics committee." The CBC said that while the underlying story about Mulroney's possible connection to Bernier was legitimate, "this was an inappropriate way of going about it, and as such inconsistent with our journalistic policies and practices."

At the end of the day last Friday, CBC executive Sean Poulter sent the Conservatives a confidential e-mail acknowledging "actions in pursuing the story were inappropriate and against CBC/Radio-Canada's journalistic standards ? they want to make sure this doesn't happen in the future."

The allegation is clear: collusion, not collaboration, between the public broadcaster and the Official Opposition.

And there, pending the results of an internal hearing and response to the Conservatives' formal complaint, the matter rests. Rodriguez insists, as he told The Hill Times newspaper, that he was "inspired by what I saw on TV, inspired by the questions in the House of Commons, inspired by the fact that Mr. Bernier never wants to answer questions ?"

"Inspired," he was. But apparently the word loses something in the translation.

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