“Are You Calling Me a Liar?”: Reflections on Unparliamentary Language at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and Beyond
Hon. Nathan Cooper is Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.
Dealing with unparliamentary language in an appropriate manner is an important way for the Speaker to maintain order, decorum, and civil discourse in the chamber. In this article, the author uses his point of view as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta to offer observations of how current and past presiding officers in Alberta, and elsewhere, have engaged in this process. He evaluates how a Speaker must strike a balance between permitting freedom of speech while also respecting the dignity of members and the assembly. He concludes by stressing the importance of context in communications in the chamber as opposed to rigid adherence in prohibiting certain words or phrases.
Hon. Nathan Cooper
Maintaining order and decorum has been a vitally important endeavour in the parliamentary world for a very long time. While speeches can become impassioned and the atmosphere within parliamentary chambers heated, rules have been in place for centuries to ensure that a civil discourse among members prevails. It is the Speaker, along with the other presiding officers, who is responsible for enforcing these long-standing rules.
This article examines recent use of unparliamentary language at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in the context of adhering to the longstanding principles of maintaining order, decorum, and civil discourse in our Chamber. From my point of view as Speaker of the Assembly, I will offer some observations on what the rule against unparliamentary language is, discuss how it is applied in Alberta, and relate some recent examples to illustrate the process. In addition, this article addresses the key questions of how unparliamentary language is currently being enforced and whether this approach remains relevant in modern legislatures. Does this ancient prohibition need to be changed or should it be business as usual?
The use of unparliamentary language is certainly not new. A procedural guide from the late 1500s warns that “no reviling or nipping wordes must be used. For then all the house will crie, it is against the order.” 1 Another procedural manual from the mid-17th century explained that the Speaker was empowered to interrupt and admonish Members of Parliament for using “a range of evil words.” 2 In more recent times, Sir Thomas Erskine May, former Clerk of the United Kingdom House of Commons (1871-1886), authored a definitive procedural work, first published in 1844 and now in its 25th edition (2019), which offers on the matter simply that “good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language.” 3
Parliaments into the 20th and 21st centuries have carried on the prohibition against the use of unparliamentary language. Unparliamentary language has been defined in the leading procedural text for Canadian assemblies, House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd edition, as follows:
The proceedings of the House are based on a long-standing tradition of respect for the integrity of all Members. Thus, the use of offensive, provocative or threatening language in the House is strictly forbidden. Personal attacks, insults and obscenities are not in order. 4
This definition captures the sub-categories of unparliamentary language, which include a prohibition against offensive or disorderly words; personal reflections, including a prohibition against imputations of improper motives (e.g., allegations of corruption); and accusations of lying, which Speakers have consistently ruled out of order in Westminster parliaments for centuries. 5
Although there is much more to say about the impact of accusations and imputations of lying and deceit, it’s best to begin by examining the interplay between parliamentary language and another vitally important parliamentary principle – in fact a parliamentary privilege – freedom of speech.
Freedom of Speech
The right to freedom of speech in the parliamentary context was codified in the 1689 Bill of Rights, which provides that “the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place outside of Parliament.” 6 It is important to note, however, that freedom of speech is not absolute. First of all, it does not cover everything that is said by parliamentarians or said within the parliamentary precincts. Instead, freedom of speech extends only to the business that is being transacted or which is ordered to come before parliament. Within this context, a member may state what they think fit in debate, in the words of Erksine May, “however offensive it may be to the feelings, or injurious to the character, of individuals” because the “Member is protected by parliamentary privilege from any action of defamation …” 7 But even within this narrowed context, freedom of speech is limited in that it is subject to the rules of debate. While a Member is free to make statements of their choosing, they may not engage in unparliamentary language in doing so.
It is the role of the Speaker to ensure a balance is struck between the two principles. Indeed, I find that when listening to the debate and assessing whether use of words and phrases in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta might be unparliamentary, I also consider the counterbalancing factor of free speech. I am acutely aware that there must be a balance between this fundamental right of the freedom of speech and the responsibility of members to use language that befits the office and complies with parliamentary rules and practices. The presiding officer must therefore judge whether the language used is intemperate, apt to cause disorder and therefore unparliamentary, or if a member is exercising their right to free speech.
Importance of Context and the Use of Lists
In assessing whether language is unparliamentary, Speakers are also guided by the context in which the word or phrase is used. Appreciating the context allows the presiding officer to understand the intent behind the use of such language, at whom it is directed, the tone, and perhaps even the nuances that underpin the remarks.
As an example, the term “water witch” was used in 2004 in the Assembly. Here is the exchange which occurred during Question Period, and which gave rise to a point of order:
Member: “My next question is directed to the Minister of the Environment. How many applications to divert fresh water from an aquifer within a coal bed methane seam are currently before Alberta Environment?”
Minister of Environment: “… Now, in my constituency, Mr. Speaker, we have people we call water witches, that can test for water, and it appears that the member opposite might be considered one. I don’t know.” 8
In its most common definition within the North American context, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term means one who searches for water using a divining rod. However, the term has an older meaning: “a witch who inhabits or is associated with water.” 9 The Speaker of the day, knowing both of the word’s connotations, mused in his ruling that “I wonder if the term ‘water witch’ would have been used if the poser of the question had been male. On that point I am going to rule that this is an actual point of order. I am going to ask the hon. Minister of Environment to withdraw his comment.” 10 The Minister complied.
The importance of context is also exemplified in members’ references to foreign leaders. Members have been admonished in the past for disparaging foreign leaders, such as the Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher. However, while these individuals and their exploits may live on in historical terms, their status as leaders was finite as is the basis for ruling disparaging references to them out of order. 11 Similarly, “fat wingless ducks” was used in 1971 to denigrate a Government and a political party for not getting its policies off the ground (or maybe, better put, off the water?). 12 Use of this phrase today in the Chamber might raise curious eyebrows, but its unparliamentary nature would be judged according to the new context in which it is used.
Clearly, unparliamentary language is context-driven and sensitive to changing times. It is, therefore, difficult to codify over the long term. House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd edition, describes the difficulty of codifying unparliamentary language best:
In dealing with unparliamentary language, the Speaker takes into account the tone, manner and intention of the Member speaking, the person to whom the words at issue were directed, the degree of provocation, and most important, whether or not the remarks created disorder in the Chamber. Thus, language deemed unparliamentary one day may not necessarily be deemed unparliamentary on another day. The codification of unparliamentary language has proven impractical as it is the context in which words or phrases are used that the Chair must consider when deciding whether or not they should be withdrawn. 13
It is for this reason that in Alberta presiding officers no longer rely on a list of unparliamentary terms. The list of unparliamentary terms was abandoned in 2012.
The Problem of Lying
Without a doubt the most vexatious of all unparliamentary terminology are all the words associated with, and ways to express, “lying.” As noted, the prohibition against the accusation that a member is lying is not something that is new. Over the years, into recent past, accusations of lying have been a staple of Speakers’ interventions and points of order throughout the Westminster world. In fact, in Alberta, of the total of 508 presiding officer rulings that have occurred during the 30th Legislature (2019-current), approximately 9.5 per cent of them have been about unparliamentary language. More tellingly, of the total rulings on unparliamentary language, 72 per cent have to do with lying or associated words.
Members in Alberta and elsewhere have been creative in the ways that they have expressed this sentiment without often actually uttering the words “lie”, “liar”, “lying”, and the like. Of course, there are the more obvious euphemisms such as “bovine excrement” 14 and “making things up.” 15 But then there are the more creative ways to express the concept, including the “Member is not encumbered with the truth” 16 or the “Premier’s casual relationship with the truth.” 17
During the fall 2021 sitting of the Assembly I encountered perhaps the most creative means to get this point across. On November 3, 2021, during Question Period, a Member rose to ask a series of questions on a bill concerning Alberta’s trail system and its maintenance. After asking his lead-off question, the Member responded to the Premier’s response and stated, in his first supplementary question:
As per usual, the Premier is making things up out of whole cloth, because it’s not in the bill, nor is it in the environment minister’s budget … 18
This prompted the Deputy Government House Leader to raise a point of order. The point of order revolved around the phrase “making things up out of whole cloth”. Since points of order raised during Question Period are not dealt with until after the Daily Routine is complete, I had a chance to learn more about the idiom “out of whole cloth.” Not being familiar with the expression, after some quick research, I discovered what it meant and made the following ruling:
The Deputy Government House Leader said that the member said “was making things up” although he failed to acknowledge that he went on to say “out of whole cloth,” as has been identified by the Opposition House Leader.
Now, I certainly disagree with her [Opposition House Leader] on her assessment of that particular idiom because I happen to know that it means to fabricate something entirely fictional or utterly false, not based on a reality at all, which sounds a lot like a lie to me. While I do appreciate the hon. member’s efforts to turn a phrase, as they say, you certainly can’t do indirectly what you can’t do directly. So, I think it’s best if the member withdraws and apologizes, and we all move on with our day. 19
So the ruling was made, the offending individual was admonished, and members in the Chamber that day all had a bit of a laugh.
A much more serious incident of the use of this sort of unparliamentary language took place a few short months later, in March 2022. In this instance, an Independent Member was tabling documents. In Alberta, members are allowed to make voluntary tablings under the item of business Tabling Returns and Reports in the Daily Routine. In a description of one of the Member’s tablings, the Member stated that on Monday the Minister of Environment and Parks “again tried to dupe the House by accusing me of wanting the Leader of the Opposition in cabinet.” 20 As the Member was tabling and describing his documents, the Minister of Environment and Parks became animated and started to heckle, responding to the language used by the Member, to which I responded in turn:
Order. If the Minister of Environment and Parks wants to call a point of order, he’s welcome to rise to his feet. Using language that’s unparliamentary, including an F-bomb directed at the Speaker, is wildly inappropriate. If you don’t like his remarks, call a point of order. 21
The Minister did raise a point of order, on which I ruled after admonishing him again for his own outburst of unparliamentary language:
Specifically referring to a member of the Assembly as misleading the Assembly is a point of order. I have provided significant swath for members to say that the Government or the opposition has misled, but you cannot say that the member misled the Assembly. For that you will apologize and withdraw. 22
These two incidents display the range of issues that arise when dealing with unparliamentary language. Intimating that a member was lying, though a serious breach of the rules, was dealt with expeditiously one day. Conversely, in another scenario when a member was accused of lying or misleading the Assembly, it caused grave disorder and cast a pall over the proceedings.
Whatever the outcome, I have discovered that an effective way to deal with this sort of unparliamentary language is to adopt a progressive and incremental approach to curtailing its use. The approach is basic, measured, and I am sure familiar to other presiding officers. It is to intervene and provide caution initially on milder infractions, but, as use of the offending language becomes more frequent or more severe, then more decisive interventions on the part of the presiding officer are employed, possibly extending all the way to the outright prohibition against the use of the offensive term. The following ruling illustrates this approach:
Speaker’s Ruling Parliamentary Language
The Speaker: I might just say that over the last couple of weeks I have made significant comment around the use of the word “lying.” While I’ve said that provided we’re not speaking about individuals, it is permissible but perhaps not profitable. If this type of language persists from both sides of the House, the Speaker may take additional steps to ban the use of such words. This is certainly my strongest statement on the use of this type of unparliamentary language. I hope that we can heed the advice and not take additional steps that would require a more interventionist approach from the Speaker. 23
Although the incremental approach does not always stop the use of unparliamentary language outright, it is helpful in that it reminds members that questioning a member’s integrity and honesty is a serious matter..Also, this approach helps to “reset” the Assembly by not only reminding members of the rules and the seriousness of contravening the rules, but also by settling them down and generally re-establishing a mood of order and decorum in the Chamber.
Does the necessity of maintaining order and decorum hinder the communication of the message?
There is a final issue worth considering on the matter of unparliamentary language and particularly the accusation of lying. Does the strict adherence to enforcing the rule limit a member’s ability to freely articulate their point of view on policies and other important matters?
There seem to be two lines of thought on the question. The first, explained above, is the traditional school, which holds that the prohibition against unparliamentary language ought to be maintained since the rule is essential to the maintenance of order, decorum and the proper functioning of parliament. All members should be treated as honourable individuals, and there should be respect for the integrity and honesty of the entire assembly. Furthermore, rigorously enforcing the rule is necessary to rein in raucous and contentious exchanges that can lead to grave disorder, an example of which took place recently at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.
The other line of thought advocates for a re-examination of the rule. In focusing on the language that is used, as opposed to the substance of the commentary, one could very well miss the message a Member is trying to communicate.
John Bercow, former Speaker of the House of Commons at Westminster, has called for reform of the “ancient rule” that prevents parliamentarians from accusing colleagues of misleading the House. In an interview with The Times on July 26, 2021, former Speaker Bercow argued that parliamentary rules should be changed in this regard even if it means that Members of Parliament accuse one another of lying in the Chamber. He added that it is “bad and dangerous for democracy” that members are barred from levelling allegations of dishonesty at other members. Bercow writes that “[t]he glaring weakness of the system is that someone lying to tens of millions of citizens knows he or she is protected by an ancient rule. They face no sanction.” By contrast, and ironically, a member “with the guts to tell the truth is judged to be in disgrace.” 24
Closer to home another example of this viewpoint comes from the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, involving a question posed by Nahanni Fontaine, the Opposition House Leader, during Question Period on March 10, 2021. Fontaine pointed out in her question regarding the recent death of an Indigenous woman that no members of the Government caucus contacted the woman’s family to offer condolences. She added that it indicates “[t]hey don’t give a crap about Indigenous women and girls in this province.” 25 The Speaker asked Fontaine to withdraw the comment and apologize, but she refused upon repeated requests, resulting in her ejection from the Chamber.
Fontaine later said about the incident that she was on the verge of uttering an expletive but checked herself because she was in the Chamber and used the word “crap” instead. She claimed that the Assembly appeared more alarmed over a word than the issue she raised and that she did not regret using the language she chose. “For the house to be more concerned and outraged over a word rather than the crisis — rather than the slaughter — of Indigenous women and girls and the two-spirited, there was no way I could reclaim that word because there’s a crisis,” said Fontaine. For the Assembly to be “more concerned about the word than the crisis is unacceptable.” 26
So, after contemplating these differing viewpoints, further questions arise. Is the longstanding rule against unparliamentary language still relevant or does it need to be revisited and possibly modified to enable elected officials to express themselves unfettered? Are the interests of citizens best served by allowing members to call each other out for lying with impunity? For some, these are appealing or at least necessary modifications to the parliamentary rules. For others, the principle that all members are to be considered – and, indeed, behave as – honourable must be maintained. Practically speaking, unparliamentary language is already a staple of Speakers’ interventions and rulings, especially in terms of the use of “lie” and its variants. Does it serve the best interests of parliament to allow free speech to reign supreme on these matters? And what of the impact on order and decorum? Would assemblies adapt, or would chambers see accusations of uttering falsehoods become commonplace, possibly inflaming debate or at least resulting in a tit-for-tat duel among members for the moral high ground?
It may very well be that I have ended this piece asking more questions than I have answered. I do not have any special insight to offer on what the future holds. Though, in conclusion, I will say that Speakers would be well advised to keep informed about the evolution of the “ancient rule” and to understand its impact both within and outside the chamber.
Language evolves; idioms change. Just as importantly, the context in which a word or expression is articulated can provide vital information as to its meaning and intent. Speakers must continue to consider the tone and intent of the member, the person to whom the words are directed, whether and to what extent the language is provocative, and, ultimately but very importantly, whether the remarks create disorder in the chamber. 27
Indeed, as Bosc and Gagnon note in the simplest of terms, what is unparliamentary one day may not be unparliamentary on another day.
1 Kari Palonen, The Politics of Parliamentary Procedure: The Formation of the Westminster Procedure as a Parliamentary Ideal Type, Toronto: Barbara Budrich Publishers, 2016, p. 68, quoted in Ruth Graham, “Withdraw and Apologise: A Diachronic Study of Unparliamentary Language in the New Zealand Parliament, 1890-1950,” PhD dissertation, p. 8.
3 Sir David Natzler et al., Erskine May’s Treatise on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, 25th ed. (London: LexisNexus, 2019), p. 495.
4 Marc Bosc and André Gagnon, eds., House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd ed. (Ottawa: House of Commons, 2017), p. 623.
5 David McGee, Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, 3rd ed., (Wellington: GP Publications, 1994), pp. 187-190.
6 Erskine May, p. 259.
7 Ibid., p. 260
8 Alberta Hansard, May 4, 2004, pp. 1213-1214.
9 Oxford English Dictionary, www. .
10 Alberta Hansard, May 4, 2004, p. 1220.
11 Alberta Hansard, May 27, 1988, p. 1319.
12 Alberta Hansard, February 18, 1971.
13 House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd ed., p. 624.
14 Alberta Hansard, June 16, 1987, p. 1946.
15 Inter alia, Alberta Hansard, November 16, 2021, p. 6144.
16 Alberta Hansard, March 15, 2022, p. 186.
17 Alberta Hansard, June 16, 2021, p. 5591.
18 Alberta Hansard, November 3, 2021, p. 5979.
19 Ibid., p. 5986.
20 Alberta Hansard, March 31, 2022, p. 593.
23 Alberta Hansard, December 2, 2020, p. 3710.
24 “Don’t ban MPs for accusing others of lying,” The Times [London], July 26, 2021.
25 “Fontaine defiant after Speaker ejects her from chamber,” Winnipeg Free Press, March 10, 2021.
27 House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd ed., p. 624.