In this House fracas, everyone loses—especially Justin Trudeau

How the Liberals brought their Parliamentary boiling point, and its aftermath, on themselves

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. (CP)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. (CP)

It would be useful to take seriously the 600 or 800 people whose response to Wednesday’s melee in the House of Commons was to inquire how everyone would have reacted if Stephen Harper had been the offending prime minister.

Let us go through the exercise.

Say it’s May of 2012 and Harper, early-ish in his third mandate—the only one in which a majority of MPs were Conservatives—looks up from his seat to discover some silly business going on between the Liberal whip and a bunch of NDP MPs. The Conservatives’ chief government whip shrugs. Canada’s 22nd prime minister leaps up from his seat and marches double-time across the aisle.

Grabbing the Liberal by the elbow, Harper growls “Get the f–k out of the way” to the New Democrats, his elbow colliding with one. She misses the next vote to collect herself.

How do you suppose that’d have gone over?

Note that it takes effort to imagine all this, because in real life Harper never did any such thing. Sure, he used parliamentary rules to limit debate, ran up big budget deficits, and had staffers devoted more or less full-time to his hagiography. In other words, he did a lot of things Justin Trudeau has begun doing. But Harper never personally racked up a casualty list. (I exaggerate for comic effect. You are offended. Get in line.)

If he had, it is easy to suppose the Liberal garment-rending would have been thunderous, that Michael Harris would have two-thirds of his next book written by dawn, and that Conservatives, while not thrilled with their man’s comportment, would be impatient with their opponents’ inability to describe it without quavering voices.

In other words, where you stand on such things often depends on where you sit.  Perhaps we can agree on this much: Harper didn’t do anything resembling what Trudeau did, because prime ministers shouldn’t act that way. In 21 years here I’ve never seen any prime minister grow so grandly weary with the Commons routine that he felt authorized to jump up and push his colleagues around. Trudeau’s tantrum was bad parliamentary procedure (the vote could have proceeded even if Gord Brown, the Conservative whip, had never found his seat, as Aaron Wherry pointed out). It was loutish language, if we stick to the principle that nobody should use words inside the House of Commons that just about everyone uses outside. It gave help to Brown that Brown hadn’t requested, and it hurt Ruth Ellen Brosseau in a way no MP should have to tolerate. Trudeau was right to apologize immediately after, then in greater detail and at length Thursday morning.

Trudeau’s hissy fit was the surprising consequence of a box the Liberals had built diligently for themselves. Their election platform amounted to a promise to defy physics. They would accomplish more than any government in a generation, while permitting debate on any subject to run as long as MPs wanted, while ending the Conservative practice of lumping unrelated topics together into a single bill. Infinite debate on an infinity of bills. It was only a matter of time before something gave. Either they would not be able to implement their agenda, or they would have to stop doing it politely.

The assisted-death bill, C-14, was the camel that broke the back of Trudeau’s straw house. OK, that’s a lousy mixed metaphor, but bear with me, it’s been a weird week. The bill takes Parliament into new and hotly contested moral terrain. It pushes hard up against a deadline set by the Supreme Court, thanks to Conservative dithering at the end of the Harper years and an overstuffed Liberal agenda since last fall. Trudeau was faced with a choice that he will have to face many more times as prime minister, between his agenda and decorum. Motion 6, a truly impressive scythe for cutting down opposition powers, was his response: He would rather get things done than be nice. Today, his already tenuous tactical position weakened by his own temper, he withdrew Motion 6. But the problem remains: Forced to be nice, he will now get less done.

Trudeau knew he had lost the day. He resisted the temptation to be grudging. He apologized repeatedly to just about everyone for just about everything he’d done on Wednesday. His opponents were, in the main, less self-aware. The parade of shocked expressions, the reference one MP made to “impact statements” as though MPs had witnessed a beheading, the interminable procession of theatrically wounded survivors, suggested it had not occurred to MPs that Canadians might be watching all of them, and judging them separately and as a species.

In particular, New Democrats who had lined up like cattle on the floor of the Commons to block a colleague—to the apparent grand satisfaction of the only major-party leader in the history of the country so odious as to lose a leadership-review vote outright—seemed unable to understand that buttering the bread of their grievance a yard thick might not be striking the entirely appropriate note.

So there is blame to go around. But none of it excuses Trudeau, whose assisted-dying bill, friendless and unlikely to last in court, joins his electoral-reform plan as evidence that the House of Commons is the part of his job he understands least, likes least, and can manage least.


In this House fracas, everyone loses—especially Justin Trudeau

    • Funny thing, last night the PnP polling question went off the ‘Richter Scale’ in favor of even liking Trudeau more, I’ve never seen a polling question on PnP with such a high volume of voting, last I saw, some 7000 or more where in the favor of Trudeau, that was about 8 o’clock. And I find it very difficult to compare Harpers tenure to any other PM(he left with not even a legacy, only a legacy of vitriol and anger, and even a does of rasicm), and as far as Mulcair goes, he needs to do something serious about that ANGER, and move on to another life, but like Harper, if the check keeps rolling in from the government payroll, than they don’t mind turning their head when they are handed their cheque. The media are doing a pile on because if they don’t the opposition will say, “you went after Mr. Harper”. This pile on by the media will have the Donald Trump effect, drive Trudeau’s numbers up. The media are not reading the public very good, but they have to write something to keep their jobs.

      • The media does a pile-on with Trudeau, but never did with Harp…..beyond wrist-slapping there was nothing

        Harp ieliminated the Census, handed prisoners over for torture, , prorogued Parliament to hide from a vote…..not to mention his cowering in a closet……

        Trudeau and his elbow however……that is apparently the end of the world.

        • Yes, Emily1, the fantasy world you live in, in which the `media never did a pile on’ Harper. The same one wherein you are waiting for your android milkman to arrive and give you and your cats some milk.

          • You are possibly the most confused poster on this site.

            Android milkmen? Cats?

            Go find something else to do.

  1. Based on the tweets I’ve seen the NDP are losing supporters and I’ve seen a few saying they think better of Trudeau.

    Trudeau he apologized immediately and unreservedly, admitted he made an error, took responsibility for his actions and stated his willingness to accept the consequences. A far more mature response than anything we have seen from the other side of the house.

    • Trudeau did not apologize immediately, nor unreservedly. There were two reserved half-hearted apologies yesterday and a complete third one this morning nearly a full day after the incident to get a proper apology in. He used all three strikes and nearly a full day.

      He forgot to tell us he is enrolling in anger management classes. Restitution or follow-up action is an essential part of a complete apology. Trudeau is still resisting this.

      • Indeed the most interesting thing of this affair is seeing that Trudeau has a dark side. “Get the f*** out of my way” is not something growled by a 100% sunny ways kind of person.

        PW says above: “evidence that the House of Commons is the part of his job he understands least, likes least, and can manage least.”

        And if Trudeau can’t fix that, and the opposition figures out how to push his buttons, it should make for more interesting episodes.

    • I think the most embarresing moment was Justin’s apology in the House. Did you um er ah um der ah hear that?!?!
      This guy is a man-child in an adult world.
      We’ll forget all this when he hugs his next panda bear.

      • I especially love the, “we all ah accept that my behaviour was ah um unacceptable”.
        That’s up there with a “proof is a proof of a proof”.

  2. shakespeare – measure for measure:

    O, it is excellent
    To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
    To use it like a giant.

  3. For most of us, if we grabbed a colleague by the elbow and pulled him forcibly into a conference room, we’d be unemployed by day’s end.

    But the relationship between the Liberals and Canada’s media being what it is, we can look forward to a series of opinion pieces explaining to the unwashed masses that it was all “no big deal,” then chastising us for even talking about it.

    • That’s exactly what I thought of. If there is evidence of this elsewhere in our offices etc then people lose big. Why is he not reprimanded or fined or mandated to take anger-management classes? Sadly I believe that there is a similarity towards his mom and one that worries me as a Canadian citizen. These are
      Assessment of emotional reactivity, defined as rapid emotional responses to salient environmental events, has been neglected in mood disorders. This article reviews data showing the relevance of using emotional reactivity to better characterize bipolar mood episodes.


  4. And, the master mind behind the House fracas, Thomas Mulcair, escapes unscathed.

    • yes, Mulcair forced Justin to get up and manhandle his fellow parliamentarians.

  5. I wish he hadn’t done that, but what sticks with me is the NDP doing what they do — passive-aggressive political schtik and exaggerating events mightily. And if Harper had done that, sure, I would have been outraged. I couldn’t stand the guy, no question.

    Which is all to say, I’m partisan enough to just want things to blow over and Trudeau to get back to it. Honestly, I found the Harper years so traumatic and debilitating, I can’t get too concerned with the nuts and bolts of the Liberals’ governance right now. I have faith Trudeau will learn from this incident, since that seems to be his nature.

    I hope this Parliament isn’t going to degenerate into what Obama faced for the last eight years, where the opposition just opposes.

  6. You are quite right. Harper would never have done this. He also would never have admitted fault and apologized.

    We all know Trudeau was wrong, but aside from apologizing and accepting full responsibility, as he has now done numerous times, what else is he to do?

    As for handling parliament, I do wonder how much of this frustration is with the fact that the bill must be passed by June 6. His government has been put in a bind by the previous government’s complete failure to act. So I am not going to judge him based on what happened this week, but I will watch.

    • Harper never had to apologize for laying hands on the opposition party whip or for elbowing an opposition female MP in the chest. Perhaps we really need a reality check here.

      • I am pretty sure I never suggested otherwise. You might want to check your reading comprehension skills.

        My point, which you have willfully distorted, is that at no point ever did Harper take responsibility for anything he did wrong. You know, like cheating in a couple of elections for example. Or the Duffy affair.

        Oh, I could go on…

    • Given that there was always a known hard deadline re assisted suicide, the prudent course of action would have been to prioritize that file. The government did not appear to do that, unlike what they did by the prioritizing the admission of 25,000 Syrian refugees in order to attempt to meet a wholly artificial deadline.

      When you’ve got a file with a hard deadline and a bunch of files with soft or non-existent deadlines, you work on the file with the hard deadline first (or at least give it priority) to try to ensure that the hard deadline is met.

      • This was not the only file with a hard deadline (the RCMP collective bargaining bill had an earlier deadline), so this government had to get two bills ready for the House. The previous government had a lot of time for both bills but did nothing. I am not sure but perhaps you can help – has the government passed any bills other than the budget before this one and the RCMP collective bargaining bill?

        I wish to reiterate what I have been saying all along – this is not an excuse for what Trudeau did. But I do think it is fair and appropriate to look at his actions in the context of all the facts.

  7. “Harper didn’t do anything resembling what Trudeau did…”. No, he just prerogued Canada’s democratically elected parliament…a move both unprecedented and undemocratic. Rather than apologize he should have stepped on Muclairs toes.

    • How many times did Chretien prorogue parliament? Try some research. No, Harper never did physical violence to anyone in his many years as PM. Justin has done in just over 6 months on the job. Maybe Justin needs lessons on how to use his words instead of his physical aggression…just we teach a toddler and like we tried to teach Rob Ford.

      • How many times has any previous PM prorogued in order to avoid a vote of non confidence. Pretty sure your fabulous research skills will come up with the answer.

      • Harper never roughly grabbed someone in the House of Commons. I agree.

        During the last election he decided to politicize a religious symbol, and then promote completely racist policies like a barbaric cultural practices tip line. Policies which most Canadians agreed were out of line with our values. Policies that, in my opinion and in the opinion of others, promoted hatred. In fact, at least one pregnant woman was brutally attacked after this somehow became an election issue.

        So performing violence? Not that I know of. Promoting it through the promotion of hatred? I think that there is evidence of that.

        • Carry on telling us how awful Harper was and how Justin was going to be the opposite and Justin is so much better except he isn’t. He is less than one year into the job and he is already passing bills to limit debate and he is showing so much anger that he is laying hands on members of opposition and telling them to get the fuck out of his way. This isn’t a contest of who is worse, him or Harper. Harper had 12 years to get to the worse and for all your complaining, he didn’t jab a female member of the opposition in the breast while telling her to get the fuck out of his way. Trudeau has managed that in his first year and it was all about limiting the debate on his bill. Keep on defending his reprehensible behavior. I have nothing to defend. Harper is gone. I don’t have to defend him just like you don’t have to defend Chretien. They are done. We were promised something new and better and we want it delivered. Why defend him. He needs to deliver.

          • So how does Chretien factor into all of this, since you brought him up? Or is it relevant to bash previous LPC PM’s in this thread about Trudeau, but not relevant to bash Harper?

            Also, if you actually read anything I said on this topic, you will know I have not defended his behaviour. Quite the opposite.

            As for the rest, if you base your dubious “point” on a complete distortion of the facts, then you don’t really have a point after all.

  8. drama on the hill. NDPers purposely bloke Conservative, PM to the rescue, one wounded. In the fog of war, she bolts for the door telephone in hand to check facebook about the Kardashians. Me thinks the lot of them need a time out and a nap before dinner. I miss Jack Kennedy.

  9. Where was the Speaker of the House…..he had only to say “you have 1 minute to get back to your seat or you will miss the vote”.

  10. It will be interesting to see how the polls turn out over the next few weeks. The pundits have missed the human factor with Trudeau: everybody knows how he felt and everybody dreams of acting decisively right or wrong at least once.

    The Ottawa media have been waiting and hoping for this moment and salivating now that it’s here.
    The Conservative backbench seems packed Harper clones driven by hatred of Trudeau. And the NDP have moved past rationality altogether.
    These anti Trudeau Ottawa power centres seem destined to overplay their hands and drag this out too long. That will reduce the impact of this mistake with the public.
    As someone mentioned, the Trump effect is at play. The public is getting sick and tired of do nothing pundits trashing leaders they like and admire.

  11. Hey, how come Paul’s name isn’t on the list of authors on the Macleans home page? Is he just going to disappear like Andrew Coyne, or Trotsky from a photograph standing next to Lenin?

    • I hope he hasn’t followed Wherry into oblivion in that inside the Queensway bubble known as CBC News.
      Post a total downward spiral.
      Maybe CTV.
      Or maybe just a glitch!

  12. Justin’s actions against Brown were much more forceful and undeniably purposeful.

    Why is what he accidentally did to Brousseau a cause for much greater concern? Because Brown is a man or a Conservative? Or is it because the Conservatives handled it far more professional than the NDP histrionics?

    Shame on you Paul for dismissing Justin’s horribly unprofessional language because just about everyone uses it outside the House of Commons. I’m sure we all use that language, but to use it with colleagues in a professional setting should be condemned and not minimized like you did.

    Wouldn’t be a politics story by Maclean’s without a knee-jerk attack on the Conservatives by Emily.

    • It isn’t a cause for concern. Obviously not for the reason that he didn’t intend to do it, though he is responsible for his actions once he goes physical, but also because she has vastly overplayed it. She hardly flinches and continues on in what she was doing pre-contact. She has suggested it was like a kick in the balls, but she isn’t curlled up on the floor frothing..

      He manhadled Brown, but the NDP was assaulting him in the first place. So was he rescuing Brown or assaulting him.

  13. The most disheartening aspect of this whole sorry affair is that the Liberals weren’t prepared for just such a stunt from Mulcair and didn’t do their research to learn that only one Whip is required to start the vote, and those still standing in the aisle would have had to scurry back to their seats in order to vote — a suitable climax to their silly gesture. What’s happened to that stellar team that covered all the bases and could do no wrong during the election campaign?

    Mulcair likely couldn’t believe his good luck when Trudeau stormed across the floor and all hell broke loose.

  14. Trudeau, bad. That part is done with.

    I rather share Louis Arbour’s opinion about the Sepreme Court as she scuttled back to teh greener pastures of Europe. What a bunch of slack jawed ninies. At best courts are suspect, but in the Canadian context the math just doesn’t work out. Compared to the US court, the pool of competition for an appointment is thin, and the court itself is comparatively ridiculous. The usual concerns about courts legislating are far more severe in Canada where votes assume far greater weight than the court ever can.

    Exhibit A is their decision on assisted suicide and their application of a deadline that clearly indicates they underestimated the political, proceedural, or policy complexity of passing such a bill.

    As i said, “Trudeau bad”, but the court deserves a large helping of blame if not for his actions obviously, but their own continued failure and unfitness for purpose.

  15. One problem Trudeau has, and so far it may not be hurting him, is that he has intentionally projected a persona of vigour and violence. Vigour is appealing, and so to many is his violence, boxing and such. But he doesn’t have the benefit off old farthood to hide behind when behaves physically. Many old men have played with their actual strength, while projecting doderinghood. I was once grabbed by Mark Lalonde (the x-minister of everything like Chretien), And Lalonde was never dodering, but the strength there was way more than the term parliamentarian prepares you for. But with Trudeau, between his bar tricks and his boxing, is like someone who’s hands should be registered with the police.

    Actually, I heard a lot about this incident before I saw it on TV, and my reaction was that he looked reasonably calm, no audio in the feed I had. He sorta glides into the fray, and then later glides accross the floor to appologize to Brosseau? One wonders if part of the issue is that MPs are actually scared of him on a physical basis.

    He has to learn though, that he should have people to do this kind of thing for him. and of course the House has people. He should neve leaver his desk.

    • I’ve seen Justin Trudeau in person, and he’s not intimidating. He’s just tall, very relaxed physically.

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