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Upholding dignity and a sense of humour in the House - EDITORIAL

28 September 2020 03:36 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Parliaments and legislative bodies around the world impose certain rules and standards during debates and Erskine May’s guide to parliamentary practice is generally held to be the most authoritative reference book on parliamentary procedure.  


A tradition has evolved, that there are words or phrases that are deemed appropriate and/or inappropriate for use in the legislature whilst in session. In Sri Lanka, during a bygone era, that is, during the days of the State Council (the period leading up to independence) and the period immediately following independence from Britain, Sri Lanka too followed the Westminster parliamentary model and British traditions of parliamentary decorum.   
Debates in Parliament were based on a thorough knowledge of the subject matter, an aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick inventive or caustic manner to emphasis a point or criticize an opponent, accompanied with a sense of goodwill. All these were part and parcel of parliamentary debate...  


Schoolchildren were often brought to parliament to hear parliamentarians debate, to learn from the experience and sharpen their own debating skills. Parliamentarians were held up to students as models of good behaviour. Alas, during the past four to five decades, times have changed, and, we have witnessed a definite decline in parliamentary standards and behaviour.   


Today one would think twice before exposing impressionable young minds to the shenanigans in parliament, which many a time descended into fisticuffs and language worse than that of ‘Mariakade’ or houses of ill-fame. Unfortunately, school children who came in organised groups from schools in different parts of the country were exposed to the unruly behaviour of our elected representatives on several occasions.    


One of the worst examples of parliamentary misbehaviour and use of obscene language was witnessed when a veteran parliamentarian used the ‘P’ word on a sitting Prime Minister of the country, in the ‘hallowed’ precincts of the House. What was worse, was the attempt the parliamentarian attempted to make to justify his use of ‘obscenities’, claiming it was said in the heat of debate... It begs the question as to whether the member of the House was so used to using this type of language that it slipped his tongue in the house... The use of obscene language it is said, is the last resort of senile, untutored minds, which, when at a loss of words descends to using vile language.  


Fortunately, in our newly-elected parliament, there are many young academics and professionals. We can perhaps be hopeful that they will rekindle the lively debates and exemplary behaviour of members of yesteryear. Above all it is hoped the dignity of the House will once again be restored and there will be resurgence of intellectual speech, of thrust, parry and repartee.  


Sri Lankan politics has had a host of luminaries from whose book our new parliamentarians can take a leaf from. Classic examples being SWRD Bandaranaike, Vivienne Gunawardene, Dudley Senanayake, Pieter Keuneman, N.M. Perera, G.G. Ponnambalam, Bernard Soysa, Philip Gunawardena, V. N. Navaratnam, Sivasithamparam, Lalith Athulathmudali, Lakshman Kadirgamar and Felix Dias Bandaranaike. In our present parliament, Wimal Weerawansa has shown exceptional debating skill and wit, though exactitude is not his forte.  


The parliament of a country is the apex body for discussion, debate, deliberation and law-making of people’s representatives. Those who stand out in parliament are invariably those who showed early promise as debaters at college or university level. Yet, good public-speaking and debating ability can be achieved only through conscious effort and knowledge. Accomplished parliamentarians, as we indirectly mentioned earlier, do not lose their cool when heckled or interrupted. They retort with panache. For example on an occasion, Maithripala Senanayake (MP for Medawachchiya) while discussing the “Dudley-Chelva Pact”, once heckled, then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake during the debate. The PM retorted “the Member of Medawachchiya is Sinhala-only by day, and for reasonable use of Tamil by night” MP Senanayake was married to a Tamil lady.  


On another occasion, as reported by Edward Gunawardena MP for Molligoda, during a parliamentary debate heckled Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, turning to the Speaker. Dr. de Silva said in Sinhala “Garu Kathanayaka Thumani! Eka molliyak thiyana sathata kiyana nama api okkoma dannawa. Namuth, molli godak thiyana sathekuta kiyanne mokaada kiyala mamanam danne ne”! (Sir, we all know which animal has a single hump, but I don’t know what an animal with multiple humps is called).  


Our new parliamentarians would do well to follow the example of parliamentarians of yore, rather than be mislead by men who find themselves out of their depth and have no understanding of the responsible positions they hold in the House of Representatives.   

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