That Trudeau touch: The line from palming babies to shoving MPs

In one day, Justin Trudeau’s physical prowess went from being a national pride to a sign of a sinister, dark side

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

The overheated response to Justin Trudeau’s behaviour in the House of Commons this week would seem to reflect some sort of collective shock that the soulful, sensitive matinee idol the nation thought it had married somehow morphed into the Incredible Hulk—or worse. But #elbowgate didn’t mark any sort of new Jekyll-Hyde transformation or even the reveal of a Trudeau dark side. The behaviour is just one more example of the PM’s penchant for highly theatrical flourishes that showcase his impressive physicality: palming a baby high in the air, busting a challenging yoga pose in Liberal caucus, performing a one-armed plank in a video. But if you elect a leader for his teen-idol charm, you shouldn’t be surprised if he occasionally acts like a teen idol.

What happened? people keep asking. This is what likely went on: The sight of Conservative whip Gord Brown being blocked by NDP MPs, thus slowing a vote, summoned Trudeau’s impatience, sure, but also an almost Pavlovian response, a trigger for another big gesture of the kind that underlines his political currency and popularity.

This is a politician, after all, whose leadership credibility is rooted in a surprise victory in a headline-making 2012 boxing match. As Canada’s “hot” PM, Trudeau’s prowess has become a source of national pride as well as a metaphor of sorts for his positive “sunny ways” energy, personal discipline and self-control.

That imagery took a beating this week. Trudeau appeared to be playing some sort of role, though what that was wasn’t clear: Dad? The school teacher or bouncer he once was? Big man on campus? Certainly it didn’t look like an act of rage: the Liberal leader patted Brown on his shoulder as he guided him to his seat, indicating “mission accomplished.” Cue the applause. The Liberal leader failed to immediately notice that he’d elbowed NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the process, which given the current female:male ratio was a 26 per cent chance. When he did, he immediately went to apologize. What’s concerning here is less that Trudeau has an anger problem—let alone a woman-abusing problem—than that he totally misread both the context and his audience. He wasn’t among the adoring masses ready to be charmed by a theatrical flourish, as imperious as it was; he was on the job in the House of Commons.

It was a particularly blundering backfire on the very day his government had been under fire for procedural strong-arming. Anyone shocked by Trudeau’s actions, however, hasn’t been paying attention. True, he is a man supremely aware of optics. But he was elected to a majority despite prior parliamentary behaviour, not because of it. He’s been known to swear before his alleged outburst on Wednesday (in 2011 he referred to then-Conservative MP Peter Kent as a “piece of s–t), and was accused of sticking out his tongue earlier this year at Conservative MPs in Parliament. Even his public apology Thursday didn’t seem to quite grasp the crucial leadership-by-example role a prime minister plays in parliamentary democracies: “The way that members behave in this House is important,” he said.

Trudeau’s most winning performances, of course, have taken place outside the House, on a far bigger stage where other actors don’t get in his way. As then-Opposition leader Tom Mulcair grilled Stephen Harper’s government, Trudeau travelled the nation where he was filmed BBQing with the Canadian middle class and mingled at a “Justin Unplugged” women-only Toronto fundraiser in 2013 that invited participants to “(really) get to know the next prime minister” with a wink and a nod. His absences did not go unnoticed: in the Harper majority years, Trudeau attended only 64 per cent of votes; since the November election, he’s been there for 75 per cent, a record better than Harper’s, but not stellar.

Proclaiming Wednesday’s behaviour as marking the end of the honeymoon, however, might be premature. As the dust settles, it’s Brosseau who’s getting heat for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and overreacting by leaving the chambers; more rightly, her party has been called out for exploiting the situation ad absurdum. Meanwhile, a nation and media remains disproportionately obsessed by Justin Trudeau’s physical actions—which suggests that, in fact, very little has changed.

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That Trudeau touch: The line from palming babies to shoving MPs

  1. When the Drooling, Slobbering, Swooning, Gushing and Fawning are over with all the Media Party has is an Empty Suit…

  2. When zeroing in on the intentions of the PM, and those of Mulcair and the NDP, Justin comes out as the champion once again. But he was clearly shaken up by the incident afterwards and ended up over-apologizing. Which may earn him even more praise. A sensitive feminist out to assist the little guy. Every Canadian knew he was going to be learning on the job and most of us are surprised how easily he has fit into the role of Prime Minister. This “touching” matter may even prolong his popularity and public approval if it causes him to behave more cautiously as he moves forward.

    • You are delusional. Stark raving lunatic…

  3. “But if you elect a leader for his teen-idol charm…”

    Seriously? Surely you can do better than this. I realize that partisan conservatives and dippers spout this nonsense, but then they do not care that they are insulting the millions of people who voted for him.

    Voters actually liked his platform and what he had to offer as a leader. We can certainly discuss whether he is meeting the high expectations he set for himself, but it is utter nonsense to suggest he won because of his “teen-idol charm”.

    “As then-Opposition leader Tom Mulcair grilled Stephen Harper’s government, Trudeau travelled the nation where he was filmed BBQing with the Canadian middle class…”

    Trudeau’s #1 job after winning leadership of the LPC was to rebuild the party. The liberals were broke and broken. You do not rebuild a party by taking on Harper in QP. It is not like Mulcair is not still brilliant in that forum, but that does not seem to be helping his party right now.

    There are appropriate and just criticisms of how Trudeau behaved. Some of them are even in your article. However you lose credibility when you start bringing in this type of nonsense.

  4. It was actually Mulcair who really seemed to lose it. It seemed like he was expressing the pain and anger of his recent experiences in this one incident. People say Trudeau and him were shouting at each other, but it doesn’t look like Trudeau was shouting back. I was exasperated with Trudeau, but it’s Mulcair that I felt took it to a disturbing level of histrionics.

    Though I say that with all due empathy and respect to Mulcair. I don’t know how politicians stay functional when they’ve put so much on the line and under such scrutiny.

  5. Imagine a MP being hit hard, in this case “elbowed” in the groin… would he have looked up, smiled, and sat down to vote?

    Ruth Ellen Brosseau, elbowed in the chest is now facing ridicule, personal attacks by the public. Surprised, pain, overwhelmed (and possible bruising)… leaving the House of Commons was appropriate for her, who are we to judge? Where’s the balanced media?

    She graciously accepted Trudeau’s apology, but he has NOT contacted her to apologize. SHAME!

    Justin, didn’t your mom teach you any manners?

    • You know there is an article on this topic, right? Perhaps you can post your concerns there.

  6. Canadians knew Trudeau would be learning on the job, however, common sense can’t be taught. He needs to learn how to deal with his anger management problems, hope he doesn’t act like this with his children if they get out of line.

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