Trolls, Clowns, & Parliamentary Language
By: Ryan Young
Earlier this week, opposition MHA Steve Kent was ejected from the House of Assembly for refusing to withdraw a statement where he referred to Finance Minister, Cathy Bennett, as being unethical, dishonest, and deceptive for giving misleading numbers during estimates committee. Kent was also called out for his use of social media which was called a “back-door” way of saying things that he would not be allowed to say in the legislature. This led to a very public Twitter debate with Gerry Byrne and a complete unhinging of Government House Leader, Andrew Parsons, who was quick to rise on the point of order that eventually got Kent ejected.
Now I know that many of my readers may not be big fans of Steve Kent, but the fact of the matter is that Kent was right. He asked the minister a very direct question and she offered an answer that did not include the whole truth. The whole issue was over the severance pay of an employee let go from Government House. When Kent asked about the amount of the severance, Bennett told him that it was $111 000. When Kent pressed for more details, Bennett revealed that the total number was $378 000. This led to the Member from Mount Peal North using the “unparliamentary language” that ultimately led to his ejection from the house. Bennett could have easily given the full amount when prompted, she had the information right in front of her, but instead she decided to be cagey and try to mislead the facts about the real amount. In this bloggers humble opinion, Kent was right to stand his ground, even if it meant that he was given a timeout from the sandbox.
So, what is unparliamentary language anyway? According to Wikipedia, 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 systems. 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 under of legislative rules.
A curious thing about the rules regarding unparliamentary language is that there is no provision against actually being dishonest in the House of Assembly. You can’t call another member a liar, but it is perfectly acceptable to lie. Sure, the rules say that a member must remain honorable at all times, but as stated above, there have been several instances where members have been caught out on a less than truthful statement, but there is no punishment for that kind of behaviour. This just highlights how outdated our system of governance really is.
Speaking of unparliamentary language, Neil King, MHA for Bonavista also rose in the House of Assembly this week to offer some very important insights to the people of NL. He told us that despite his great job of spreading the government's message in a recent media article about CNA, the internet trolls were out in full force against him. King took a few minutes to tell the province how he felt he was being treated unfairly and unjustly by the keyboard warriors trying to tarnish his good name and finished the segment by referring to constituents who have expressed legitimate concerns to him as “clowns.” Very parliamentary language to be sure and a wonderful use of the time allocated for important debate in our legislature.
After some expected criticism on social media, King lashed out at a local Facebook group known as FreeNL, accusing them of mocking his physical appearance and his facial disability. The post garnered quite a bit of sympathy for King among his friends, but as is the common practice for government MHA’s, anyone with opposing views are blocked so nobody was able to offer the truth about King’s comments. I personally scoured the posts and comments regarding King on the FreeNL page. The group has over 4000 members and not surprisingly, there was quite a bit of negative criticism of King’s words. Curiously though, there was not one mention of his appearance or any type of disability or impairment. It is unfortunate that an MHA would stoop to such behaviour as to mislead people into believing that he is being cyber-bullied by “internet trolls,” when in reality they were just reacting to his calling them trolls and clowns for expressing their views on the very important issues in our province. Maybe if Mr. King wants to put such allegations out there, he should have some credible evidence to back it up.
In another curious twist, Education Minister, Dale Kirby, chimed in on King’s post, taking personal shots at one of FreeNL’s leaders, Mark Croft. Kirby wrote:
“Croft spends his time blaming the government for his perpetual state of unemployment. He fails to realize that social media is the first place most employers look when screening job applications. One look at his despicable online bullying behaviour is enough to deter any employer.”
Not only does Kirby continue to perpetuate the myth that Mark Croft or FreeNL are personally bullying MHA’s, he also gives false statements about Croft’s employment. Croft is currently employed full-time and uses his spare time for activism. While there is certainly some heated debate on FreeNL and other groups, Croft has been one of the leaders in trying to discourage negative and personal comments about individuals and has been steady in his attempt to keep the discussion about the issues. Instead of trying to paint anyone who protests their governance as unemployed, uneducated, social justice warriors that can’t even get a job, perhaps if Kirby and the rest of the Liberal caucus should take the time to come to one of the people’s protest and learn that these events are being organized and attended by hardworking Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that care enough about the mess this government s creating to stand up and try to have their voices heard.
There are many more examples example of the lengths that our government will go to deceive the people and distract them from the truth. The House of Assembly Management Commission voted to accept the committee’s recommendations regarding pension reform instead of the Liberal proposal. Kirby and other members tweeted that the PC’s and NDP voted against pension plan that would save the province money. They conveniently neglected to mention that their plan was voted down because it would have grandfathered in all of the current one-term MHA’s and made them eligible for a pension after just two years of service. Kirby also accused both opposition parties of voting against pay supplement increases for Early Childhood Educators. The truth is that while both parties did vote against the budget itself, there was no specific vote regarding the ELCC supplement and opposition members had expressed during debate that they were happy to see the wage increases even if they could not vote for the budget as a whole.
The irony is not lost on this blogger that Steve Kent was punished for calling out Bennett on not offering the correct numbers and for using his Twitter account as an outlet to let people know what was happening in the House of Assembly, while government backbenchers and ministers alike are taking to social media to insult their constituents and spread false information about people and groups that they disagree with. Despite their promises to be open and transparent, the Liberals have not fared very well when it comes to being forthcoming with information to the public. Getting even the simplest piece of information can often be a monumental task and the premier and his cabinet have been caught up on more than one occasion being less than entirely truthful in their answers in the House of Assembly and to the media.
This whole unfortunate situation is symptomatic of many of the problems we are experiencing with government these days. Lack of openness and communication and a total disregard for what voters are saying have made this one of the most unpopular governments in our history. Calling people trolls and clowns in the House of Assembly and making false statements on social media about those who oppose you are not the best ways to endear voters to give you another chance next time around. People expect better from their elected officials and it is very disappointing to see this kind of behaviour from our MHA’s. With so many important matters that need to be addressed to get this province back on track, I am glad that they find the time to ridicule the people that they were elected to represent. If this is the best that we can expect from the people we elect to represent our best interests, then 2019 can’t come soon enough.