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Heckling across the floor in Parliamentary debate is long established practice in democratic National Assemblies. Listen to or watch any serious debate, such as a Budget debate, in the British Parliament, to establish this fact. The nature, the kind and the intent of the heckling you will hear in Britain’s Parliament is most certainly not what we saw and heard in our National Assembly during our Budget debate.
I was in the National Assembly for eight (8) years and we all, on both sides of the House, indulged in heckling. Forbes Burnham was particularly good at it when he was in the House as Prime Minister. His jibes across the floor were intellectually clever, mostly humorous, always politically pointed, but never insulting, never defamatory and never ever vulgar. The repast from the other side was equally so. Brindley Benn was particularly good at it. It was generally done in good humour, intended to throw the speaker off or respond directly to the point he was making.
At tea or lunch breaks, we would all meet and continue the tantalise in good humour. If it got out of hand, by being too frequent, too loud and interruptive, or on a rare occasion bordering on personal insult or libel, the Speaker would intervene and tone it down, and if required, demand a withdrawal and an apology.
There were occasions when tempers were completely lost and, when this did occur, the guilty party was duly reprimanded and disciplined. I recall, for instance, Prime Minister, Cheddi Jagan, throwing the law books assembled in front of him onto the floor and disrupting the entire sitting and the Speaker subsequently acting appropriately.
In shameful contrast, the heckling across the floor in the current Budget debate, if it can be called heckling, the shouting of personal insults, the thoroughly degrading abuse of privilege, the level of sheer, undisguised, unadulterated vulgarity to which some of our Parliamentarians on both sides of the House were allowed to descend, is a plague upon the debate.
I say “allowed”, because the Speaker permitted all of this ugly, unbecoming, puerile behaviour to take place without intervention nor criticism. The Speaker failed to do his job. Parliamentary debate is privileged under the law of libel and defamation when reported and broadcast. That is precisely why the Speaker has both the authority and responsibility to stop it and require a withdrawal and an apology for any remark, including heckling, which would invite a libel suit if made outside of the privilege of the House. Quite apart from this disgraceful behaviour by our Parliamentarians, speakers are generally expected, in Parliamentary debates, to confine themselves to the subject at hand and, again, the Speaker can and should intervene when they stray too far from the subject and indulge in simply hurling criticism at the other side about their performance or alleged performance in or out of office.
Minister Ashni Singh must have been cringing in his seat having put some five (5) hours of public effort in presenting a Budget which was a “tour de force”. Unfortunately, much of the Budget presentation I heard bore no relationship at all to the budget and focused only on listing the alleged misbehaviour of the party across the aisle. Perhaps, though questionable, good politics but bad Parliamentary practice.