Take off Those Olympic Mittens, but the Goldfish Bowl Is in Order: Props, Exhibits and Displays in Parliaments

By McLellan, Ray | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Winter 2019 | Go to article overview

Take off Those Olympic Mittens, but the Goldfish Bowl Is in Order: Props, Exhibits and Displays in Parliaments


McLellan, Ray, Canadian Parliamentary Review


Maintaining order is an important part of the Speaker's responsibility in parliament. In order to protect speech within a chamber, Speakers have long referred to written and unwritten rules and precedents which have limited non-verbal expression to communicate a message--namely props, decorations, displays, exhibits, and certain clothing. However, Speakers in different jurisdictions have opted to make some allowances provided these items do not fundamentally alter the desired decorum. In this article, the author traces the history of such rulings, beginning in Westminster, before surveying Canada's federal, provincial and territorial parliaments. He concludes by highlighting practices in Australia and New Zealand. The author would like to thank the Association of Parliamentary Libraries in Canada for conducting a survey of Canadian jurisdictions for this paper. He is also grateful for the research assistance provided by the Ontario Legislative Library.

The Speaker's role in parliament and legislative assemblies is to maintain order, relying on precedents and procedures to promote the dignity of the chamber during proceedings. Westminster is commonly referred to as the fount of democracy and mother of parliaments--the origin of ancient parliamentary traditions and precedents.

The use of exhibits, props, and displays by Members during debates is a long-standing but controversial practice that has been frowned on by Westminsterstyle legislatures over the years. Today, in the era of legislative broadcasts and social media, the benefit of visual exhibits during debates has an enhanced appeal. This article addresses parliamentary precedents and Speakers' rulings restricting the use of exhibits at Westminster, as well as in legislatures across Canada, and in Australia and New Zealand.

Westminster--The First Parliament

The first parliament was established in England in 1265 with the election of representatives. This fledgling institution was to become the United Kingdom's modern House of Commons. The term "parliament" refers to "an enlarged meeting of the King's council, attended by barons, bishops and prominent royal servants, called together to attend the King, advise him on law-making and administrative matters and hear and assist with his judicial decisions." (1) During the thirteenth century, the Palace of Westminster became the formal meeting place of the English Parliament. (2)

The endurance of this ancient parliament and similar bodies in countries throughout the Commonwealth is a testament to the principle of free speech in open debate enshrined in the United Kingdom's Bill of Rights in 1689. This legislation set out "That the Freedom of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament." It has endured in part due to Speaker's rulings establishing decorum-based rules of free debate. This freedom is held to be the most important parliamentary privilege and the cornerstone of parliamentary democracy. (3) Speaker's rulings limiting the use of exhibits and props are not seen as impinging on freedom of speech in debate.

The Speaker's 1952 Ruling

In 1952, Speaker Morrison ruled that exhibits ancillary to a debate--intended for illustrative purposes--are not permitted in the House. Accordingly, he found that

   an hon. Member is quite in order in bringing
   into the Chamber any books or papers which he
   may require to consult or to refer to in the course
   of debate; but with the exception of Ministers,
   whose despatch cases and official wallets are
   under a special dispensation, despatch cases
   should not be brought in. (4)

In addition to despatch cases, the Speaker noted that prohibited exhibits included weapons, decorations, sticks and umbrellas. A restriction on ladies' handbags, however, was deemed unreasonable. (5)

In making this ruling, the Speaker explained that it was based on "usage," rather than written precedent:

   There is nothing to be found in writing on this
   subject. … 

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Take off Those Olympic Mittens, but the Goldfish Bowl Is in Order: Props, Exhibits and Displays in Parliaments
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