Parliamentary Rules Need A Touch Of Emily Post

If you live beyond the boundaries of British Columbia and could care less about spats now occupying high-priced politicians and even higher priced public servants, click your way now to a more interesting page. Today’s effort is for British Columbian’s only – unless you have an unusual interest in parliamentary procedures and believe rules of order and respect for those rules are essential for reasoned, rational, debate.
Here’s the picture: Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the fire breathing protector of unfortunate children and youth in British Columbia, recently released a report from her office before it was tabled in the Legislature.
Speaker Linda Reid, charged with the unenviable task of maintaining order in a debating chamber known more for its cacophony of sounding brass and tinkling cymbal than for common courtesies and, even more important, commonsense, took it upon herself to advise Turpel-Lafond that releasing her report to public before it was tabled in the House was a discourtesy bordering on contempt for the Legislature. Had Speaker Reid complained only about a lack of courtesy Turpel-Lafond could have had little complaint. It is a long standing practice for such reports to go first to the legislators, then to the public.
I quickly add that while it may be common courteous practice to present such reports first to Legislators it is not an embedded “privilege” that Legislators must receive such reports before anyone else. Courtesy might demand it, the rules do not.
Standing Order 26, in “the House rule book”, has a 46 page appendix dealing with “matters ruled a breach of privilege.” I assume both Turpel-Lafond and Speaker Reid are familiar with it, but both may have missed a brief advisory on the issue by George MacMinn, former Clerk to the Legislature, in his classic third edition of Parliamentary Practice in British Columbia. On Standing Order 26 he wrote: “To give a concise definition of privilege would be impossible. Erskine May, 21st edition (one of the great authorities on parliamentary rules) devotes nearly 85 pages to the subject, There are thousands of Speaker’s decisions on privilege throughout the Commonwealth and abundance of decisions on the subject in British Columbia.”
Far be it for me to attempt to wade through those “abundant BC decisions” but I will venture a few thoughts: it seems to me that before anyone can be found guilty of “contempt of the Legislature” they must first be charged and found guilty of breach of privilege. And if the Speaker is going to consider and permit debate on the issues of “privilege” MacMinn writes: “In order for a matter of privilege to succeed it must be raised at the earliest opportunity” and “the motion proposed must allege an actual breach of privilege.”
So here’s a layman’s interpretation of the current scuffle – an interpretation based entirely on news reports in print and electronic.
The opportunity for anyone to raise a breach privilege charge and ask the Speaker for a ruling on Turpel-Lafond’s action is long past its “earliest opportunity” requirement. The Speaker would only officially get into a breach of privilege issue if the matter had been immediately raised with ruling requested. The motion requesting such a ruling would have to be specific and establish at least a prima facie case of breach of privilege. If the Speaker felt that was established, a motion would then be called to “deal with the matter to determine the facts that exist in the particular case alleged or complained of”. (The quote is from a ruling by NDP Speaker Gordon Dowding on a breach of privilege issue in 1973 as noted by MacMinn)
Some final thoughts on Turpel-Lafond’s indignation to the suggestion she was getting close to contempt of the Legislature. News stories in The Sun and Time-Colonist informed me she felt “intimidated and bullied” by Speaker Reid’s unfounded criticism. I find an “intimidated and bullied” Turpel-Lafond hard to picture. She added, according to those same news reports, that there is nothing in her child watchdog legislation that prevents her from publishing a report as and when she sees fit.
She’s right. There is nothing – except standard courtesy, good manners and respect for the institution. Maybe both ladies should re-read MacMinn’s classic on the rules with care – and a gentle riffle through Emily Post wouldn’t hurt.

2 comments

  1. Is it perhaps asking too much of Turpel-Lafond to extend courtesy and respect to an institution that seems unworthy of both? Of course by constitutional protocol all government business must be first introduced in the Legislature but Turpel-Lafond may have said, “I don’t want to go there.”

    I’m old enough to remember when such behaviour would have been condemned. I recall a passage from one of the numerous Churchill biographies. There’s some important military development but he says he cannot discuss it until he’s announced it in the Commons.

    Today a minister announcing, say, an increase in the childcare stipend goes to a daycare to do it so as to provide a spectacular photo-op.

    If Crown ministers can thumb their noses at their Legislature what should we expect of a higher priced civil servant?

  2. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond strives with great passion to address the daunting task as her position as representative of children and youth. Ms. Turpel-Lafond does this with precious little assistance from the government. I would describe her in as a deeply committed advocate for the vulnerable, traumatised souls she represents rather than “fire breathing”. As such a devoted and caring individual who is striving to protect vulnerable children and youth I don’t think it is difficult to view her as one who could be intimidated by Ms. Reid’s accusation. I expect her level of frustration is extremely high….she is, after all, trying to do a herculean job in the face of resistance by the B.C. Liberal government. Courtesy, good manners and respect not withstanding, surely Mr. Turpel-Lafond’s reaction to Speaker Lynda Reid’s outrage directed at her is understandable and, in my view, warranted.

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