Nick Taylor-Vaisey

The elbow that nearly ruined Parliament

Justin Trudeau's behaviour unspooled the House, and only a backtracking government returned a sense of normalcy

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers questions from opposition MPs as he addresses the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 19, 2016. Trudeau apologized for his conduct following an incident in the House Wednesday when he pulled Conservative whip Gord Brown through a clutch of New Democrat MPs to hurry up a vote related to doctor-assisted dying. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers questions from opposition MPs as he addresses the House of Commons on Thursday, May 19, 2016.  (Adrian Wyld, CP)

Justin Trudeau was in trouble as soon as he started his apology with an ‘If.’ The Prime Minister had earlier attempted to play hero in the House, butting into a crowd of NDP MPs and extracting the Conservative party whip to ensure an important vote could go on. In the process, Trudeau made physical contact with NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau. So he stood to make amends.

“If anyone feels that they were impacted by my actions, I completely apologize. It was not my intention to hurt anyone. It is my intention to get this vote done,” he said, alluding to a time-allocation motion that was consumed by events. But adding a condition to that apology didn’t do much to calm Trudeau’s opposition colleagues, so he tried again about 25 minutes later.

“I want to take the opportunity, now that the member is able to return to the House, to express directly to her my apologies for my behaviour and my actions, unreservedly,” he said. The qualifiers were gone, but the damage was done. Trudeau had lost control of the House, which returned to the issue this morning.

And that’s how Trudeau came to offer his third apology to Brosseau, and the rest of the House, in a little more than 12 hours. This most recent attempt at contrition was lengthier, carefully delivered, and spoken in low tones.

He apologized to Tory whip Gord Brown. Trudeau acknowledged that his misguided attempt to aid the possibly impeded Brown was “not appropriate,” and was not his role. He then moved on to the instantly infamous elbowing, apologizing robustly to Brosseau.

“I made physical contact with the member for Berthier–Maskinongé, something I regret profoundly and for which I apologize unreservedly. I apologize to my colleagues, to the House as a whole, and to you, Mr. Speaker, for failing to live up to a higher standard of behaviour. Members rightfully expect better behaviour from anyone in this House. I expect better of myself.”

But that was not that. A united opposition sensed opportunity. Even as they recognized the sincerity of Trudeau’s apology, they stood in succession to demand that his government withdraw Motion No. 6, tabled yesterday, which would weaken the opposition’s procedural hand and empower government ministers to virtually control debate until the House adjourns for summer. You be the judge of their artful attempts at subtlety, starting with NDP MP Linda Duncan.

“It’s important for all of us to understand why things have gotten so heated in this chamber. It’s important that the right of all the members in this place be respected, not just to be free of physical assault, but to be free of having their rights and privileges assaulted,” said Duncan, attempting a rhetorical segue for the ages. “I’m wondering if, as part of his apology, [Trudeau] will consider reversing the decision to take away our rights and privileges, so that we may all participate equally here in this chamber.”

The Prime Minister refused to take the bait, offering a tidy non-response. “[Duncan] noted that the way this House has been engaging, the way indeed the government has been behaving over the past while, has perhaps led to this incident. But I certainly know that she would agree with me when I say that no amount of escalation or mood in this House justifies my behaviour last night.”

Trudeau didn’t exactly defend his government’s behaviour. He appeared to imply that Liberals were partly culpable for the mood in the Commons, which might be a first in modern times—but not enough to mollify his opponents.

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose took her turn. She was more direct. “Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the Prime Minister’s apology, but he’s saying he wants to move forward, and he wants to do that responsibly, and together. I don’t know how we can do that unless he removes this motion that he has on the order paper.”

Trudeau, still acknowledging the general nastiness of the place, continued to fall on his sword. Over and over. “I think it’s important that we draw a clear line between what was my unacceptable behaviour and the general tone of this House,” he said. “The escalation and tone of this House does not lead to any justification of my actions, and I accept that fully.”

The grievances went on. Tory MP Peter Kent floated the idea that Trudeau should be held in contempt of Parliament. Kent’s 10-minute reprimand exacted a measure of revenge against Trudeau, who once referred to then-environment minister Kent in rather salty terms. Conservative MP Michael Cooper elevated Trudeau’s actions to criminal assault. As of 2 p.m. ET, the House was still officially preoccupied with debate over Trudeau’s behaviour, interrupted only by question period. It looked like it could go on and on until the end of time, or at least next month.

And then something happened. Ambrose rose during question period to demand, once again, that the government withdraw Motion No. 6. Trudeau wasn’t in his seat, but government House leader Dominic LeBlanc rose to his feet—and announced he’d withdrawn the motion. The opposition clapped.

So that small measure of sanity capped a bizarre 24 hours in Ottawa. Now the House can return to what its denizens do best: screaming at each other about policy, at least tangentially, from a safe distance; sticking to talking points that are equal parts partisan and inane; and requiring fewer than three tries to properly deliver an apology.