17 June 2012

Some words for Lorraine, via Peter Cashin #nlpoli

Lorraine Michael should bear in mind that some very famous Newfoundland and Labrador politicians found themselves accused of defaming someone.

That’s really the essence of the current question of privilege Government House Leader Jerome Kennedy levelled against her last week.  Kennedy knows the law well enough to know that what she did is a matter that he or Felix Collins ought to have taken to a courtroom on Duckworth Street.  Kennedy likely also knows the law well enough to realise he stands virtually no hope of getting anything from a Supreme Court justice except the back of his or her hand.  That’s why he is trying to win in the kangaroo court where he controls a majority of the votes.

The only thing between Jerome and what he wants is the integrity of the Speaker.  Much rests on what appears to be that very sturdy foundation.  Given that the current Speaker is head and shoulders above the two incompetent and partisan buffoons who occupied the office before him, there’s hope that the Speaker will put an end to the foolishness. and the House can get back to business.

In the meantime, let’s enjoy part of our political history.  The year was 1947.  Two justices of the Supreme Court and the Registrar of the Supreme Court sued Peter Cashin over remarks Cashin made on the floor of the National Convention.

“I state now,” said Cashin, that the Commission government was brought about by bribery, and corruption indirectly.  Let us trace the members thereof since its, inception.  The first three Newfoundland commissioners were two members of that [last elected Newfoundland] government, the Prime Minister [Frederick Alderdice] and the present Commissioner for Public Health [John C. Puddester] and Welfare, and the late Mr. Howley.  …”

Cashin continued with his explanation and included the names of others who had served in the last administration or in the House and who later received appointments to the Commission.

The libel suit is the central episode – quite literally – in the version of Peter Cashin’s second memoir published recently by Flanker Press.  Cashin never finished  the manuscript for My fight for Newfoundland before he passed away in 1977.  The Flanker Press edition is the result of several years of research by former Lieutenant Governor Edward Roberts.  His notes and explanations of the background to people and events Cashin mentions give the book a value beyond the reminiscences of a man who played a pivotal role in Newfoundland politics in the 1930s and 1940s.

In his closing remarks to the nine member jury, Cashin quoted a 1924 decision by the Lord Chief Justice of England.  Roberts quotes it on p. 145 of the Cashin memoir:

Every latitude…must be given to opinion and to prejudice and then an ordinary set of men with ordinary judgment must say, not whether they agree with it, but whether any fair men would have made such a comment, mere exaggeration, or even gross exaggeration would not make the comment unfair.  However wrong the opinion might be expressed in point of Truth or however prejudiced the writer, it may still be within the prescribed limit [of permissible speech of statement].

If that is the rule on the street for ordinary mortals, one can imagine what latitude ought to be afforded parliamentarians in the midst of a heated debate when all the parties are tired.

Note in particular these words, rendered clumsily in the extract because they appear to be copies of a statement made aloud.  The passage would make more sense if it had a full stop after the phrase “made such a comment”:

…[M]ere exaggeration, or even gross exaggeration would not make the comment unfair.

By the same token, it would not seem to be a contempt of the House or of the Speaker if a member talked about the same issue with similar words and a different emphasis even after she apologised for the first remarks.

Free speech  - especially in the legislature – may sometimes require that we accept remarks that might cause an insult but that might get to a wider point.

After all, what would be the greater injury to the House when looked at in context,  Michael’s remarks or the teacher and lawyer who looked scornfully on a host of countries including one he’d never heard of?

What would be a greater contempt of the House when looked at in the context, Michael’s comments on the floor of the chamber and her comments on radio or the speeches by government members that contained falsehoods?