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 system. This includes, but is not limited to the suggestion of dishonesty or the use of profanity. The most prohibited case is any suggestion 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 Legislative Assembly of Québec:
- parliamentary pugilist (1875)
- a bag of wind (1878)
- inspired by forty-rod whiskey (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 (consistently from 1959 to the present)
- hypocrisy, hypocrite (from the early years through the tenure of Speaker Gilbert Parent; apparently not ruled unparliamentary by Speaker Peter Milliken)
- a trained seal (1961)
- evil genius (1962)
- Canadian Mussolini (1964)
- pompous ass (1967)
- fuddle duddle (1971)—probably the most famous example in Canada
- pig (1977)
- jerk (1980)
- sleaze bag (1984)
- racist (1986)
- scuzzball (1988)
- girouette (French for "weathervane", Québec 2007)
- bully (2011)
- a piece of shit (Justin Trudeau to Peter Kent, Question period 2011)
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).
- Bad Man
- Bag of shit
- corner boy
- scurrilous speaker
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.
- 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 House of Commons of the United Kingdom, the following words have been deemed unparliamentary over time:
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 unparliamentarily 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 Welsh Assembly the Presiding Officer has intervened when the term "lying" has been used. In December 2004, the Assembly notably ordered out Leanne Wood 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.
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 "jerk" by Opposition leader Neil Kinnock was not unparliamentary language.
- Colin Pilkington (1999). The Politics Today Companion to the British Constitution. pp. 157–158. ISBN 978-0-7190-5303-0.
- "Senate Official Hansard: Thirty-eight parliament first session—fourth period" (PDF). Parliament of Australia. 16 June 1997. p. 38. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 June 2011.
- "The Role of the Speaker of the House of Commons". Parliament of Canada. 25 October 2001. Archived from the original on 26 March 2005.
- John Robert Colombo (2011). Fascinating Canada: A Book Of Questions and Answers. Dundurn. ISBN 1459700287.
- "Official record of proceedings; Wednesday, 13 November 1996". Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. 13 November 1996. p. 121.
- Salient Rulings of the Chair (2nd ed.). Dublin: Dáil Éireann. May 2002. §408.
- "Dáil code: 'handbagging' not allowed". The Irish Times. 12 December 2009. Retrieved 13 December 2009.[dead link]
- Marie O'Halloran (14 December 2009). "Changes expected to Dáil code after use of 'f-word'". The Irish Times. Retrieved 15 December 2009.
- "Dáil Debate Vol. 697 No. 5 "Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Bill 2009: Committee and Remaining Stages." Personal Apology by Deputy". Houses of the Oireachtas. 11 December 2009. Retrieved 21 December 2009.
- "Irish MP's F-word outburst sparks parliament review". BBC News. 15 December 2009. Retrieved 21 December 2009.
- "Ceann Comhairle refuses to apologise for calling TDs 'gurriers'". Irish Independent. 8 November 2012. Retrieved 8 November 2012.
- "Special topics: unparliamentary language", Parliament of New Zealand website, dated 28 July 2006, retrieved 3 April 2009.
- Peev, Gerri (9 July 2010). "Pressure mounts on 'cavalier' Gove as Cabinet colleague criticises school blunders". Daily Mail (London).
- "Unparliamentary language", BBC News website, 31 October 2008, retrieved 3 April 2009
- MacDonald, Alistair (19 June 2009). "Parliament Finally Sees Some Beauty in Britain's Beast of Bolsover". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 13 November 2009.
- "Official Report: Assembly Business - Speaker’s Ruling: Unparliamentary Language". Northern Ireland Assembly. 24 November 2009. Archived from the original on 13 June 2011.
- "Assembly Speaker William Hay says three MLAs 'used offensive remarks'". BBC News. 19 November 2013.
- "AM expelled for 'Mrs Windsor' jibe". BBC News. 1 December 2004.