Parliaments and legislative bodies around the world impose certain rules and standards during debates. Tradition has evolved that there are words or phrases that are deemed inappropriate for use in the legislature whilst it is in session.
In a Westminster system, this is called unparliamentary language and there are similar rules in other kinds of legislative systems. This includes, but is not limited to, the suggestion of dishonesty or the use of profanity. Most unacceptable is any insinuation that another member is dishonourable. So, for example, suggesting that another member is lying is forbidden.
Exactly what constitutes unparliamentary language is generally left to the discretion of the Speaker of the House. Part of the speaker's job is to enforce the assembly's debating rules, one of which is that members may not use "unparliamentary" language. That is, their words must not offend the dignity of the assembly. In addition, legislators in some places are protected from prosecution and civil actions by parliamentary immunity which generally stipulates that they cannot be sued or otherwise prosecuted for anything spoken in the legislature. Consequently they are expected to avoid using words or phrases that might be seen as abusing that immunity.
Like other rules that have changed with the times, speakers' rulings on unparliamentary language reflect the tastes of the period.
Partial list, by country
In Belgium there is no such thing as unparliamentary language. A member of parliament is allowed to say anything he or she wishes when inside parliament. This is considered necessary in Belgium to be able to speak of a democratic state and is a constitutional right. Nevertheless, on 27 March 2014, Laurent Louis, acting as an independent (not party-related), called the prime minister (Elio Di Rupo) a pedophile. The other members of parliament left the room in protest. This immunity that manifests itself in an absolute freedom of speech when in parliament does not exist when outside of parliament. In that case prosecution is possible when and if the majority of parliament decides so.
These are some of the words and phrases that speakers through the years have ruled "unparliamentary" in the Parliament of Canada, the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, and the National Assembly of Québec:
- Parliamentary pugilist (1875)
- a bag of wind (1878)
- inspired by forty-rod whisky (1881)
- coming into the world by accident (1886)
- blatherskite (1890)
- the political sewer pipe from Carleton County (1917)
- lacking in intelligence (1934)
- a dim-witted saboteur (1956)
- liar (1959)
- devoid of honour (1960)
- joker in the house (1960)
- ignoramus (1961)
- scurrilous (1961)
- to hell with Parliament attitude (1961)
- trained seal (1961)
- evil genius (1962)
- demagogue (1963)
- Canadian Mussolini (1964)
- sick animal (1966)
- pompous ass (1967)
- crook (1971)
- does not have a spine (1971)
- fuddle duddle (1971)
- pig (1977)
- jerk (1980)
- sleazebag (1984)
- racist (1986)
- scuzzball (1988)
- weathervane (2007)
- a piece of shit (2011)
- like a fart (2016)
The President of the Legislative Council ordered out for using the following phrases:
- 臭罌出臭草 (foul grass grows out of a foul ditch), when referring to some of the members (1996).
The following phrases have been deemed unparliamentary by the President of the Legislative Council:
- 仆街 (literally stumble on street, loosely translated as "go die" or "go to hell") widely considered by Hong Kongers as unacceptable language in civil settings (2009).
Or to insinuate that a TD is lying or drunk; or has violated the secrets of cabinet, or doctored an official report. Also, the reference to "handbagging", particularly with reference to a female member of the House, has been deemed to be unparliamentary. The Dáil maintains a document, Salient Rulings of the Chair which covers behaviour in and out of the House by TDs; section 428 of this lists unparliamentary speech.
In December 2009, Paul Gogarty apologised in advance for using "unparliamentary language" prior to shouting "fuck you!" at an opposition chief whip. This phrase was not one of those listed explicitly as inappropriate, prompting calls for a review. Seán Barrett, Ceann Comhairle of the 31st Dáil accused TDs of being like "gurriers shouting on a street at each other". He said he would not apologise for this.
I ask to speak not prudently, nor imprudently, but parliamentarianly— Giacomo Matteotti
In addition, during the Republic, the use of foul language in Parliament produced jurisprudence by the constitutional court, which has implemented the libel suits.
- idle vapourings of a mind diseased (1946)
- his brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides (1949)
- energy of a tired snail returning home from a funeral (1963)
The Parliament also maintains a list of language that has been uttered in the House, and has been found not to be unparliamentary; this includes:
- commo (meaning communist, 1969)
- scuttles for his political funk hole (1974)
In the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, the following words have been deemed unparliamentary over time:
In addition, accusations of 'crooked deals' or insinuation of the use of banned substances by a member are considered unparliamentary language (all attributable to Dennis Skinner). An accusation that an MP's presence in the house has "been bought" is also unparliamentary.
In 2019, in the run up to the Conservative leadership election, SNP leader Ian Blackford accused Boris Johnson of being a racist, on being asked to withdraw the term "racist" by the speaker, Blackford confirmed that he had informed Johnson about his intention to use the phrase and qualified his statement, the speaker then allowed it to stand. In the following week he accused Johnson of being a liar "has made a career out of lying", no request was given by the speaker to withdraw this statement .
The Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, William Hay MLA, gave a ruling in the Chamber on 24 November 2009 on unparliamentary language. In essence rather than making judgements on the basis of particular words or phrases that have been ruled to be unparliamentary in the Assembly or elsewhere the Speaker said that he would judge Members' remarks against standards of courtesy, good temper and moderation which he considered to be the standards of parliamentary debate. He went on to say that in making his judgement he would consider the nature of Members' remarks and the context in which they were made. In 2013, Hay ruled that insinuation of MLAs being members of proscribed organizations was unparliamentary language.
In the National Assembly for Wales the Presiding Officer has intervened when the term "lying" has been used. In December 2004, the Presiding Officer notably sent Leanne Wood out of the chamber for referring to Queen Elizabeth II as 'Mrs Windsor'.
In the USA, representatives were censured for using unparliamentary language in the House of Representatives throughout its history. Other levels of government have similar disciplinary procedures dealing with inappropriate words spoken in the legislature.
Avoiding unparliamentary language
It is a point of pride among some British MPs to be able to insult their opponents in the House without use of unparliamentary language. Several MPs, notably Sir Winston Churchill, have been considered masters of this game.
Some terms which have evaded the Speaker's rules are:
- Terminological inexactitude (lie)
- Being economical with the truth (lying by omission), since used on the floor of the house as an insult or taunt.
- Tired and emotional, a euphemism for intoxicated
Clare Short implicitly accused the Employment minister Alan Clark of being drunk at the dispatch box shortly after her election in 1983, but avoided using the word, saying that Clark was "incapable". Clark's colleagues on the Conservative benches in turn accused Short of using unparliamentary language and the Speaker asked her to withdraw her accusation. Clark later admitted in his diaries that Short had been correct in her assessment. In 1991, Speaker Bernard Weatherill adjudged that usage of the word "jerk" by Opposition leader Neil Kinnock was not unparliamentary language.
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- Salient Rulings of the Chair (2nd ed.). Dublin: Dáil Éireann. May 2002. §408.
- "Dáil code: 'handbagging' not allowed". The Irish Times. 12 December 2009. Archived from the original on 25 October 2010. Retrieved 13 December 2009.
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- Speech of 30 May 1924 the last speech of Matteotti, from it.wikisource
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