The need for full and frank debate in the House of Commons has been regarded as paramount. Without immunity against civil and criminal prosecution for libel and slander, parliamentarians might fear to raise contentious issues in the House, or speak out against the government of the day.
Issues of parliamentary privilege have always been regarded as Parliament's alone to adjudicate. Neither Crown, court nor cabinet can intervene. If they could, Parliament would soon find itself paralyzed by lawsuits and orders-in-council.
Which is why this solicitor's letter from the Liberal Party to Stephen Harper demanding an apology is much more offensive than anything he could have said about the party:
Prime Minister Paul Martin demanded an apology Friday morning. When the Tories refused, the Liberal party sent a letter through the Blake, Cassels and Graydon law firm.
A spokesman for Martin cast it as a legal warning shot.
"Mr. Harper (was informed) in writing of our intention to defend the party vigorously against any false smears such as those he uttered (in the Commons) under the protection of privilege," Scott Reid said.
"Mr. Harper has a chance to show leadership by admitting he went too far. He should simply do the right thing.
"At minimum, he should know the party will not tolerate false smears from he and his surrogates."
I am sorry to see such a prestigious firm lend its name to an assault on one of the cornerstones of the Canadian constitutional order and free government thereunder. No constitutional lawyer worth his salt would have advised the Prime Minister to intimidate the opposition with a threat of unconstitutional legal action.
If Paul Martin believes that Stephen Harper violated parliamentary privilege, he should complain to the Speaker of the House, and let him start the process that will take it to the House to decide.
Let him ask for an apology in Parliament, and not cower behind a lawyer's letter.
But then, the Liberals did carry on governing after losing a non-confidence vote in May. The only parliamentary privilege that it realizes is its privilege to control Parliament.
Read more about parliamentary privilege at the Speaker of the House of Commons' official webpage.