EDITORIAL: MPs should not forget discretion
ONE OF THE BETTER ASPECTS of our parliamentary system is the premium which the rules of debate place on the use of fine language and the disapproval with which breaches of the rules of debate are visited by the House and the presiding officers.
We are a fortunate people in that not only do we have a Parliament with a long and celebratory history; but one in which the most honorable traditions of finest parliamentary language are upheld as the norm.
But wit and invective are in the arsenal of the combative member who wishes to verbally pierce the armour of his opponent. Many are the fine examples which have been used on the floor of our Parliament, to land point and counterpoint in the most telling manner.
To describe one’s opponent as having spoken fluently, pausing neither for breath, nor, indeed, thought is the kind of comment that would deflate the most pompous windbag if it were ever used in a parliament.
It would be equally witty if instead of calling a member a liar, an unparliamentary word, one were to say of an opponent who had just finished his speech, “I should think it was hardly possible to state the opposite of the truth with greater precision”. That was done in a foreign parliament.
Invective is therefore the weapon of choice in genuinely adversarial parliamentary combat, in which a member may wish to inflict the kind of sting that would otherwise be deemed unparliamentary, and the examples chosen show that Parliament is not a Sunday school but at the same time is not a barnyard nor a fish market.
We mention these matters not to become embroiled in the day-to-day exchanges of the legislature but because of the nature of some of the attacks in our Parliament within relatively recent times. The language is more muscular and the focus of the attacks seems more personal than policy-directed.
The latest attack in which a member was said to have two germs attached to her soul was not ruled out of order; but the imagery was not in the least pleasant and was directly personal in a manner which is disturbing, even if it was a reply to personal attacks in the first place.
Language is a powerful force for good and bad, and the image of a member as a host for germs attaching to her soul is not consistent with the imagery one normally associates with our country’s highest debating chamber.
Our democracy is a young one in which all are free to express themselves within the law. But we maintain that there is always a space between expressing what the law allows and what personal judgement dictates. That space exists within the society at large, and we think should exist even in the most aggressive debate within our parliament.
Discretion is still the better part of valour.