How to lose control of the House of Commons

Justin Trudeau barged across the floor of the House and, seconds later, the chamber revolted

The House of Commons will remember May 18, 2016, for two prime ministerial apologies: Justin Trudeau’s formal apology to hundreds of Indian immigrants, turned away in 1914 when Canada wouldn’t allow the steamship Komagata Maru to dock in British Columbia; and Trudeau’s hasty apology to NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau, whom he elbowed as he barged across the aisle to grab the Tory whip, Gord Brown. The first will make history books, mostly in the endnotes, as the final, hopeful act in a century-long fight for justice. The second will be lucky to earn a footnote, but anyone who remembers it will, with a wince and a cringe, recall how it fleetingly brought anarchy to an august chamber.

For posterity, let’s sketch a sequence of events: MPs were preparing to vote on a time-allocation motion related to Bill C-14, the government’s doctor-assisted death legislation. The chief Opposition whip, Gord Brown, appeared to have had his progress across the aisle impeded to some extent by NDP MPs. Trudeau, interpreting a physical barrier to a colleague, rose from his seat and determinedly crossed the floor. The PM dug through a gaggle of New Democrats to grab Brown. In the process, Trudeau came into contact with the nearby Brosseau, who was visibly startled.

Soon after, Trudeau again crossed the floor and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, not known for employing a cooler head, lashed out at the PM. He shouted loudly and repeatedly, restrained by his colleagues. Eventually, everyone sat down, but no one on the opposition benches was ready to move on. Trudeau’s allegedly wild elbow had derailed House business. He eventually sort of apologized for his actions, then left the Commons. Speaker Geoff Regan intervened to remind everyone that manhandling isn’t allowed on his watch. MPs offered their opinions. Some (Liberals) said he clearly had no intent to injure anybody. Others (on the opposition benches) said his actions were heinous, and possibly unprecedented. After much debate about the incident, they all tried to agree, in perfect parliamentary fashion, to refer it to a committee for further study. But time ran out before they reached that particular resolution.

All the while, the internet documented the chaos. You’ve seen Twitter reaction before, so let’s be fairly brief.

1. Green Leader Elizabeth May attempted to restore some semblance of reason. Nice try!

2. A Conservative MP alleged that Canada had dropped in global rankings to Third World status. Helpful!

3. Another MP compared the Tory whip’s silence on the matter to a locker-room code. Mature!

4. The traditional Twitter jokes were made and retweeted. And liked!

5. At least part of Trudeau’s honeymoon was declared dead. [Insert “Because it’s 2016” joke!]

6. A former parliamentarian, infamous for his own lack of decorum, tut-tutted. Eek!

7. A former prime minister observed. Spot him!

8. A former Speaker of the House snuck in a jab. Ouch!

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose released a statement at 8:50 p.m. She rejected any suggestion that Trudeau meant no harm. “In my nearly 12 years as a member of Parliament, I have never seen a fellow member—let alone a Prime Minister—act as disrespectfully and recklessly toward his colleagues, or toward Parliament, as I did this evening,” she said. “His clear intent was to intimidate members physically and his actions resulted in my NDP colleague Ruth Ellen Brosseau being shoved into a desk. She was clearly shaken up.”

From all of this, any reasonable observer can draw exactly one conclusion. Trudeau offered a heck of a master class on how to completely lose control of the House of Commons in dramatic fashion. And in a matter of seconds, at that. All of this on a day when opposition politicians and the journalists who keep an eye on government were railing against the Liberals for attempting to exert too much control on the House.

Ambrose alluded to that irony at the end of her statement. “Today’s actions by the Prime Minister are also a culmination of Liberal attempts to curtail debate on key issues,” she wrote, “and remove the tools the Opposition has to hold the government to account.”

The Tory leader was referring to Government Business No. 6 (a motion hidden deep within the parliamentary orders of the day), which Ottawa Citizen reporter Kady O’Malley called a “procedural hammer to smack down opposition dissent.” O’Malley reported that the motion would, among other things, “impose stringent limits on opposition-initiated motions, which would effectively close off most of the procedural loopholes traditionally invoked by opposition parties to demonstrate their dissatisfaction by delaying regular House proceedings.”

In other words, the new rules enshrined by GB No. 6 would make it a lot easier for the government to control the affairs of the House. The aforementioned Scheer, himself intimately acquainted with the finer points of parliamentary procedure, spoke against that motion in the House.

Whatever the consequences of the Trudeau-prompted fracas in the House, it proved that no majority government can rein in a House full of MPs determined to voice their displeasure. It also proved that on any given day, the apology a prime minister hopes will make the most headlines may be mostly forgotten by dusk.