WCape deputy speaker's ruling on Max Ozinsky's remarks

Piet Pretorius states that ANC MPP's comment that Helen Suzman "wanted to kill us" is unparliamentary and should be withdrawn

Ruling by the Deputy Speaker in the Western Cape Provincial Parliament, Piet Pretorius, on remarks by ANC MPP Max Ozinsky, Thursday, June 6 2013:

During debate on 9 May the hon Premier raised a point of order to enquire whether a certain utterance by the hon member Ozinsky was parliamentary or not. The utterance in question was: "she wanted to kill us", referring to Helen Suzman, a former member of national parliament.

What is at issue here is whether the hon Ozinsky has abused his parliamentary privilege of freedom of speech. The privilege of freedom of speech allows a member to raise any matter in the House without fear of legal consequences. However, that freedom of speech is not absolute and is curtailed by parliament's own rules, resolutions, precedents or rulings from the Chair.

The hon Ozinsky, in addressing the Chair on the matter at the time, correctly referred to a previous ruling from the Chair, namely that it was not unparliamentary to reflect on a member of national parliament. His assertion, however, that it was ruled parliamentary to "insult" members in the Other Place is his own interpretation and wrong. The ruling in question, as well as subsequent clarification from the chair, set certain limitations. Let me quote from that ruling:

"Members have freedom of speech in the House and in committees of the House, but.....that freedom of speech is not unlimited. As an institution we determine the parameters within which we operate - and in determining those parameters we are guided by our own Rules, previous rulings and convention, our Constitution, our Powers and Privileges legislation, our Code of Conduct and developments and precedents in other Westminster parliaments including our own national parliament. And above all the Chair has a duty to ensure that acceptable standards of parliamentary propriety shall be maintained."

Therefore, although it is parliamentary to reflect on a colleague in the national parliament, the way that is done, in other words, the words used, must be considered. If an utterance or conduct crosses that line of propriety it will be unacceptable and unparliamentary. Examples would be to make grossly derogatory or insulting statements, or indeed to accuse such a colleague of murder or of killing or wanting to kill people.

As current members of national parliament do not have protection in this House, it then follows that former members of national parliament also do not have protection in this House; it is therefore not unparliamentary per se to reflect, within the meaning of the term "reflect", on former members of national parliament. The same would apply to former members of our House.

This is also in line with Australian practice. Let me quote from the Australian "House of Representatives Practice":

"Although former members are not protected by the Standing Orders, the Chair has required a statement relating to a former member be withdrawn, and on another occasion has regarded it as most unfair to import into debate certain actions of a member then deceased."

But let me come to the specific utterance by the hon Ozinsky. The question I have to consider is whether the utterance can pass within the ordinary meaning of ‘reflect' (Afr - refleksie werp), or whether it goes beyond, can be regarded as an insult, or is in bad taste, or is likely to create disorder and is therefore an abuse of parliamentary freedom of speech.

For a member to accuse someone outside of the House of having killed or wanting to kill people is a very serious accusation, perhaps more so as it refers to a former member in the national parliament. The Chair's duty is to maintain order in the House and to preserve its dignity and decorum, and utterances which continually test the boundaries of freedom of speech make it very difficult for the Chair. This is not an exact science, but ultimately the Chair must decide, based on rules and precedent, but also on the specific merits, whether that line of propriety has been crossed or not. 

In this specific instance the Chair would fail in its duty if it were to allow this type of accusation to go unchecked. This is not an accusation that specific policies or actions of the then government had led to people being killed or were meant to kill people, a statement which could well be parliamentary, but is in fact a very specific and deliberate accusation that a specific person, namely Helen Suzman personally, wanted to do the killing.

Not only is it unsubstantiated, but if allowed it could open the door for recriminations and tit for tat, involving other former members, that would exacerbate matters and undermine good order and decorum of the House. I therefore rule that the specific utterance goes beyond the scope of acceptable freedom of speech, is therefore not parliamentary and needs to be withdrawn. I ask the hon member Ozinsky to withdraw the remark.

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