Can you say that in the Alberta legislative assembly?

Can you say that in the Alberta legislative assembly?

There was a time when Alberta MLAs who thought about hurling insults in the legislative assembly could find out beforehand which words were guaranteed to land them in hot water.

A handy list detailed the words and phrases the Speaker of the legislature considered off-limits.

It included such gems as, "Why don't you get an operation and get your lips attached to your brain?"

The list of "expressions ruled unparliamentary by Speakers/Chairmen of the Alberta Legislative Assembly" dated back to 1905 and was updated until 2012.

It was then determined that it was impossible to rule what was inappropriate, because in some instances the word or phrase might be acceptable.

It's all about context. Tone, manner and intention are all relevant, although it might be difficult to ever find the right context for a line such as, "Take his jacket and stuff it in his mouth," which was banned in 1996.

Deputy premier Sarah Hoffman found herself apologizing last week, the day after she used a regrettable phrase in the legislature.

While telling the house the NDP government is creating jobs, cutting school fees and freezing tuition, Hoffman used the phrase "sewer rats" to describe people who associate with the Wildrose Party.

"The members opposite just want to keep jacking those things up," she said. "We're focused on hard hats. They're spending a lot of time with sewer rats."

Hoffman later withdrew the comment.

'There was no excuse'

"There was no excuse and I want to start by saying that," she told reporters before Tuesday's question period. 

"Any time we start trying to justify using words that are hurtful and full of vitriol, it only perpetuates the issue further ... certainly wish I would have chosen my words more wisely."

But don't expect "sewer rats" to be ruled unparliamentary as it might have been in the past, because it could come up under different circumstances.

For instance, it could potentially be used in the chamber when MLAs are discussing the Alberta government's rat patrol — a program designed to keep the province free of rats that have tails, whiskers and fur, and are not allowed to vote.

Back in the day, such a term would have likely made the list. In fact, another phrase using the word "rat" did make the list, in 1993, when a member said, "Better to be all of those things than a rat like him."

Using animals to describe people has been a popular insult in the chamber over the years.

The old list includes weasel, chicken, goose, dogs, "fat wingless ducks," jackasses, monkeys, mouse, skunk, "trained seals" and pufferfish.

Even "you" was added in 1992, when one MLA used it to refer to another instead of the proper term "member" or "minister."

'Bovine excrement'

Other words and phrases were clearly meant as insults: "Shut up, you jerk" and "Shut up, you wimp" both made the list.

The word "garbage" was popular. It was added three times between 1985 and 2001.

"Balls" was one of the more recent entries. It was included in 2011 after a member posed the question, "Will the premier find the balls to call a public inquiry?"

"Bullshit" was added several times. Even "bovine excrement" was included, after it was uttered in the chamber in 1987.

Lie, lied and lying made the list, as did mislead and misleading.

There were some odder entries as well, such as, "Sitting over there quacking."

It's not clear if this comment was connected to someone being called a "fat, wingless duck."

"Kicking the teeth of children" was added to the list in 1993.

Perhaps some of the more unusual ones came from "the minister of gobbledygook," an entry dating back to 1978. 

MLAs must show each other respect

In the case of Hoffman's "sewer rats" comment, a point of order was raised in the legislature. Speaker Robert Wanner ruled on it Wednesday.

"I'd like to remind the members first of all, that while it is the job of the Speaker to maintain order and decorum, it is also a responsibility for each member to show a high degree or respect for their colleagues," Wanner said.

"In the instance we have before us, we have a reference to comments that were originally made by the deputy premier, remarks that were certainly intemperate.

"Indeed, there was a subsequent acknowledgement that the remarks were not appropriate when the deputy premier unreservedly apologized and withdrew her comments."

Wanner went on to explain that typically when a comment is withdrawn and an apology is given, that is honoured and the assembly moves on.

Still, he said he is concerned about the deteriorating tone.

"While there may not have been a per se point of order in the exchange of remarks, it does little to improve the freedom of speech. Honourable members, it is our collective responsibility to address this matter. And as we move forward, we can return to conducting the business that all Albertans expect of us."