The Expulsion of Jagmeet Singh from Parliament

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“Mr. Speaker, I withdraw my statement that half the Cabinet are asses. Half the Cabinet are not asses.”

-Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

Few parliamentarians of his day or ours could boast the verbal gifts of Benjamin Disraeli. But even had he not found so clever a way to accomplish it, he would have been required to withdraw his unparliamentary assertion that certain among his parliamentary colleagues were (ahem) asses.

Fast forward a century and a half to June 17, 2020 when NDP leader Jagmeet Singh refused to withdraw his assertion that a fellow parliamentarian, Bloc Quebecois member Alain Therrien, was a racist for declining to support an NDP motion on racism in the RCMP. Singh was expelled accordingly.

There is little doubt the term racist constitutes “unparliamentary language”; the word was specifically ruled to be such in 1986. But what’s the big deal about that?

Unparliamentary language refers to words that are not permitted in the legislature, a large portion of which consist of nasty epithets. It is a corollary of parliamentary immunity, by which parliamentarians are protected from civil action for slander and libel while they are in the legislature. This in turn is an element of parliamentary privilege, a broader body of principles that protects in independence of the legislature from interference by the executive.

The basic logic is straight forward. To protect free speech in the legislature, members receive immunity from defamation suits. The price they pay is that they can’t say certain potentially slanderous things about their colleagues. Thus for instance, parliamentarians cannot call a colleague a liar, though they might try to sneak in a comment that the colleague has a relaxed relationship with the truth.

The accuracy or inaccuracy of unparliamentary language is irrelevant. That may seem odd, but try to imagine an effort to debate the accuracy of an ugly adjective. Parliament might have time for little else and the dignity of parliamentary debate would likely tumble from its already dubious heights.

About the author

Karl Salgo

Karl Salgo

Executive Director - Public Governance

As Executive Director of Public Governance, Karl provides advisory services to multiple levels of government (provincial, federal and international) on all aspects of public sector governance, including institutional capacity, the center of government, organizational design and effectiveness, accountability, oversight, and risk management. He also plays a lead role in the IOG's research initiatives, including the work of the Public Governance Exchange, a syndicated, multi-jurisdictional forum for developing and exchanging ideas on public sector governance. Additionally, Karl provides educational services to public servants and appointees on a broad range of subjects, ranging from policy development and MC preparation to political savvy and the operations of government, to the responsibilities of directors in a wide range of public institutions.

A career public servant, Karl has degrees in political science, history and law from the University of Toronto and in public administration from the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. He worked for many years in the federal Department of Finance, in areas as diverse as tax policy, communications and financial markets. In the latter capacity, Karl helped to establish the governance framework for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and later served as Chief of Capital Markets Policy.

From 2004 to 2012, Karl worked in the Privy Council Office’s Machinery of Government Secretariat, where he provided advice to the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister on the organization and structure of the Government of Canada – the Cabinet, portfolios, and the creation, winding-up and governance of individual organizations.

As Director of Strategic Policy from 2007 to 2012, Karl was the secretariat’s lead authority on Crown corporation governance, the conventions of the Westminster system, and the conduct standards applicable to ministers and other senior public office holders. Karl was the author/editor of numerous PCO publications, including Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State and Guidance for Deputy Ministers. Actively involved in realizing the myriad governance and accountability changes that flowed from the Federal Accountability Act, Karl played a lead role in the design and implementation of the accounting officer mechanism of deputy minister accountability.

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