Unparliamentary Proceedings
[ Issue 44 ]

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Unparliamentary Proceedings

In the Web Line column for Issue 44 Tony Rogers treats us to some wild goings-on in some of the worlds legislatures.

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Web Line — Tony Rogers


Since at least the 1890s, the lower house of the NSW Parliament has been known as “the bear pit”. The term arose partly from its shape (“a sunken enclosure for exhibiting bears”), and partly from the ferocious abuse exchanged by politicians of all persuasions, which at times does resemble the uproar of bears fighting tooth and nail.

As far as I am aware, NSW MPs have not yet actually come to blows. Nonetheless, the name has stuck and reminds us of how chalk-and-cheese the conduct of politicians in lower and upper houses can be. NSW upper house President Dr. Meredith Burgmann has said, “If the lower house is the bear pit, the upper house is the teddy bear pit!”

Such a distinction can be seen the world over. Even the honey-tongued American Congress, where decorum and respectfulness normally reign undisturbed, has had its moments:

War and Means Brawl: House Republicans and Democrats in Verbal Fisticuffs (Washington Post, July 19, 2003)
It started with the mind-numbing reading of a 200-page pension overhaul bill, erupted into a remarkably bitter name-calling match between House Republicans and Democrats, and ended with a GOP lawmaker summoning Capitol Police to evict an outraged gaggle of Democratic colleagues from a congressional library.

Here are some other fine international examples to be had via the Internet:

Punch-Up over Press Law (BBC, August 6, 2000)
Scuffles between reformers and hardliners erupted in the Iranian parliament after a debate on amending the press law was called off on the orders of supreme leader Ali Khamenei . . . The speaker of parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, was forced to switch off microphones as deputies struggled to grab them . . . Reformist deputies staged a brief walkout.

Fisticuffs Again Bring Venezuela Parliament to Halt (Reuters, November 10, 2003)
Two Venezuelan lawmakers traded punches on the parliament floor Thursday, forcing a long-running and acrimonious debate on reforms to the Supreme Court to be suspended . . . It was the second time in six weeks that National Assembly deputies had come to blows and delayed debate of the reforms . . . Local television showed the two reeling across the floor of the assembly, grappling with each other and swinging punches.

MP in Punch-Up with Ministers in Zimbabwe's Parliament (newzimbabwe.com, May 19, 2004)
Parliament exploded into a boxing ring on Tuesday when opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) MP Roy Bennett floored, then kicked out at two Cabinet Ministers Patrick Chinamasa and Didymus Mutasa . . . Bennett, speaking on Wednesday, refused to apologise but said it was “nothing to be proud of” . . . Some Zanu PF legislators, brandishing pistols, threatened to shoot Bennett during the brawl . . . Bennett was later escorted out of Parliament by the Sergeant in Arms.

Politicians Spark Uncivil Debate On Public Decency (Johnson's Russia List, February 12, 2003)
Civility in Russian public discourse has in recent weeks become the subject of a debate that is itself breaking new ground for its lack of civility. Two legislators exchanged insults and punches days after parliament passed legislation banning officials from . . . swearing and using insulting words, as well as slang and vulgar language.

MPs come to blows in Sri Lankan Parliament (The Hindu, July 25, 2002)
. . . Sri Lanka's politics hit a new low today with backbenchers from the two main parties . . . trading blows in Parliament . . . The pandemonium broke out after the Leader of the Opposition, Mahinda Rajapakse, made a statement demanding an apology by a Minister, Ravi Karunanayaka, for levelling baseless charges that the Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, had brought bombs in her handbag to kill Cabinet Ministers . . . None was injured in the brawls — punctuated by parliamentary papers flying across the House and dominated by personalised physical and verbal attacks by MPs — that suspended proceedings for close to an hour, sources in Parliament said.

Theatre of the Absurd (Financial Gazette, Harare [Zimbabwe], May 28, 2004)
A few years ago, while reading the Afrikaans news bulletin on the South African Broadcasting Corporation's Channel 2, the newscaster, Rian Cloete, collapsed in a heap of uncontrollable laughter as he tried to introduce a particular news clip . . . The video clip that reduced Cloete, a seasoned newscaster, into fits of mirth before the cameras was about an incident that had occurred in the legislative assembly of an Asian country . . . Apparently things got so heated in that august house that two members of parliament came to blows. In the ensuing pandemonium, more MPs joined in . . . Looking at that mass of humanity, it seemed that everyone was manhandling someone else without really caring who they were. No wonder Cloete lost control completely.

Finally, one of many examples from what might well be that “Asian country”:

S. Korea Leader Impeached after Parliament Fisticuffs (Arizona Daily Star, March 12, 2004)
Parliament voted to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun on illegal electioneering and incompetence charges today following hours of scuffles and dramatic protests . . . The impeachment passed by a vote of 193 to 2, well above the 181 votes needed for the measure . . . Many pro-Roh lawmakers had been forcibly removed from the chamber by Assembly security and were unable to vote . . . A shoving match was sparked earlier when pro-Roh Uri Party members tried to stop Assembly Speaker Park Kwan-yong from taking the podium, the only place he can call a vote . . . Assembly security officers then moved in to begin removing lawmakers trying to block his progress.

So much for the “inscrutable Oriental”.

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