Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Civility idea good in theory

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Federal New Democrats want MPs who engage in harassment, threats or personal attacks, or misrepresent an opponent's position, to be temporarily prohibited from sitting in the House of Commons and fined. NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen has moved that the Commons committee on procedure and House affairs give the Speaker the power to suspend MPs and cause forfeiture of their salaries while suspended.

The federal NDP is on to something here. The routine hostility, heckling and antics of many MPs are an embarrassment of long standing and have turned off Canadian voters

But part of the NDP's "civility project," as they've labelled their campaign, is problematic.

The Speaker should be empowered to suspend, briefly, an MP who, for example, insults another MP's gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or personal appearance.

Determining what's a misrepresentation of the facts, or merely a different polemical take on those facts, however, is a fool's errand. Having the Speaker parsing the tone, tenor and diction of MPs' every critical comment to determine whether they exceed limits of normal parliamentary discourse isn't workable. Worse still, it smacks of an attempt to interfere with MPs' principal duties -- to freely inquire, debate and legislate.

At the root of some of our MPs' misbehaviour is the near-untouchable status they enjoy in our legal system.

MPs are legally immune for anything they say in Parliament. Within the confines of Parliament or a parliamentary committee, an MP can baldly call another MP, or anyone else, an axe murderer or child molester and face little consequence for the lie. MPs enjoy what's known as "absolute privilege," meaning they can't be sued for injury to reputation caused by uttering falsehoods.

MPs know they've been granted a special licence to speak their minds, and some of them abuse that licence. However, they also know their immunity to defamation lawsuits begins and ends in Parliament. That's why an MP often won't repeat outside the House what he or she so bravely alleged in the House.

The freedom of MPs to say whatever they want on matters of public policy is sacrosanct in our law.

But the NDP initiative signals that the House of Commons' collective lack of decorum has at last become an embarrassment to MPs, or at least some of them. Any measures that would reduce incivility and restore dignity in the House should be given due consideration.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2013 A6

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