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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.
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