Parliament from the good old days has been transformed from an estimable institution that made it a distinguished body to the decay and disrepair in moral and social values as evidenced today. The prefix Honourable Member then suited virtually every individual within those hallowed halls of our legislative body. But now in the words of the Bard’s Mark-Anthony, they are merely by protocol ‘all honourable men.’ Round the benches of the old chamber, opposite the Galle Face, are clusters of many famous memories of great events and great personages.
But it was a different era then with very different values, with its members exuding the kind of class and courtesy rarely found among the present political fraternity. Parliament then symbolized a caste of veritable patriots. Yet, no one can presuppose that all parliamentary procedure in our political assemblage had been impeccable even then. There were the usual confrontations, some witty some caustic. And yes, many were the battles that raged across the floor. But they were largely contests fought, so to say, by the Queensbury rules of the august assembly. There were both conservatives and non-conformist revolutionaries among them. Some of them may have been guilty of their fair share of rambling cliché-ridden speeches, but neither category ducked the burning issues of the day and their language was restrained because that was what was expected of everyone. They believed they owed their voters and the nation one thing above all else – accountability, with their sights always on the larger horizon and perhaps the next hustings.
People were totally charmed by the intelligence, the laughter, the candid quality of their intense speeches, and the thrust and parry of delightful debate. They were sometimes boisterous, audacious perhaps, but never obscene. Some of them had the ability to be outrageous, but still were highly respectable. There are yet a few among us who would be able to conjure up a picture of our old chamber and its largely cultured occupants. The new chamber certainly provides more comfortable and spacious setting, but hardly retains the memories of the old assembly and it is unlikely that it will.
The most recent legislative brouhaha occurred when the Opposition demanded that the three-member committee’s report on the Central Bank Treasury bond issue be debated in Parliament. When Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe rose to speak on the matter, Vasudeva Nanayakkara stood up to raise a point of order. Wickremesinghe attempted to prevent Nanayakkara from raising a point of order, creating an acrimonious debate, even as Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa kept insisting that Nanayakkara should be allowed to speak.
A seething Nanayakkara accused the Prime Minister of not knowing what a point of order is or what standing orders in Parliament are. “Do you think you can make me sit down? P*****,” Nanayakkara said. The feisty Trotskyite has been long associated with calling a spade a spade. But he should have remembered that calling a spade a shovel in not so genteel terms is just not on, in legislative debate. And asking a shovel to ‘go shove it’ is certainly deemed un-parliamentary behaviour. But this time the riotous, red revolutionist appeared to have outdone himself by lambasting premier Ranil in the Sinhala vernacular as a male sexual appendage.
The repeated expletive by the hot-headed Vasu is a common insult you hear on street corners. In Anglo-Saxon parlance, one could roughly equate it with commonly abusive epithets such as, ‘prick’ or ‘dickhead.’ The point I am trying to make is that our parliamentarians are not inventive enough to coin words or phrases that sound innocuous although couched in insult. Vasu who was the Minister of National Languages and Social Integration until the last presidential poll is conversant in four languages. He speaks Sinhalese, Hindi, English and partially Tamil. The impetuous imp in his make-up has now revealed that his proficiency in profanity is as equally dexterous. And astoundingly, this time he got away with it. His excuse that the language and the words he used in Parliament against the PM were unintentional and provoked by anger was too facile as well.
He would have done better had he taken a leaf from another legendary, older Trotskyite in another time. I am referring to the late Bernard Soysa, who possessed the rapier wit and facility to cross foils with all-comers. He was gifted with the rare turn of phrase and wit to be able to demolish his opponents with an awesome economy of words. Who can forget the time when Bernard Soysa was constantly being interrupted by the then UNP’s red-baiting Minister of Education, IMRA Iriyagolla with shouts of ‘raththa, raththa’. Turning to the Speaker with his usual unflappable demeanour, Soysa said: “Sir, there is a certain bovine animal which goes berserk at the colour red. I only hope our honourable Minister of Education is not related to the same species.”
With the exception of a few Left heavyweights such as DEW Gunasekera and Prof. Tissa Vitharana there do not appear any legislators capable of displaying the highest form of earlier professional parliamentary etiquette.
For instance, our legislators would do well to catch up on the history of many such cases in the Mother of all Parliaments, the British House of Commons, where it’s considered un-parliamentary to accuse another honourable member of lying, even if they are.
Winston Churchill famously used the phrase ‘terminological in exactitude’ to get around this rule. According to legend, Benjamin Disraeli was told off by the Commons Speaker for declaring that half of the Cabinet were ‘asses.’ And he responded to his censure with perhaps the greatest zinger in political history. “Mr Speaker, I withdraw,” he said. “Half the Cabinet are not asses!”
In the recent case of Vasu vs. Ranil who traded insults on the floor of the House, I could only say that notwithstanding the contravening of parliamentary etiquette, from a truthful perspective they both could have been spot on!