Politics

Justin Trudeau's elbow punctuates his least sunny day: Aaron Wherry

Incident not without irony, as Liberals have been accused of strong-arming on procedural rules

Justin Trudeau House altercation - 2

In a still image from House of Commons video, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre-right, is seen reaching in for Conservative whip Gord Brown, centre, as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, centre-left, stands by. The video shows the prime minister bumping NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau, right. (CBC)

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After the bells have rung to summon members, the whips of the government and official opposition enter the House of Commons together, walk up the centre aisle along their sides, bow towards the Speaker, bow to each other and then take their seats. 

It is this routine that signals to the Speaker that the House is ready to take a vote.

And it is this bit of pageantry that led the prime minister to be accused on Wednesday night of manhandling a fellow MP and elbowing another in the chest.

And so did the prime minister punctuate his least sunny day (at least so far).

On the available video, Liberal whip Andrew Leslie and Conservative whip Gord Brown can be seen beginning the walk together, but Brown is soon lost in a crowd of New Democrats. Leslie politely waits, but then proceeds.

Justin Trudeau's actions cause uproar in House 0:41

Leslie turns and walks over to Trudeau and Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc and the three men look down to where Brown is located behind three New Democrats: Tom Mulcair, David Christopherson and Ruth Ellen Brosseau.

'Some mischief'

Christopherson and Mulcair have their backs to Brown and Brown can't seem to get past them, Christopherson and Mulcair unfortunately stepping into his path. (Elizabeth May would later testify that she had seen "some mischief" on the floor.)

After about 10 seconds, Trudeau gets out of his chair, strides purposefully down the aisle, puts himself between Mulcair and Christopherson and grabs Brown by the arm. 

He is said to have suggested the New Democrats "get the f---" out of his way.

As he's leading Brown away, Trudeau appears to elbow Brosseau, who is standing behind him.

As Trudeau returns to his seat, Mulcair can be seen laughing. But the NDP leader then seems to consult with Brosseau, who appears upset. When Trudeau returns to the NDP corner to try to speak to with Brosseau, Mulcair shouts at him (apparently something about the prime minister being "pathetic").

NDP MP Brosseau: 'I was elbowed in the chest' 0:33

Mulcair and Trudeau end up nose-to-nose before various members intervene.

'Anger fierce in his eyes'

Official complaints and great consternation ensued.

Conservative MP Peter Van Loan (who knows a thing or two about coming across the aisle) raised a question of privilege and testified that the prime minister had come across the aisle "with anger fierce in his eyes and face." NDP MP Niki Ashton worried about the treatment of women in the House and challenged the prime minister's claim to being a feminist. Brosseau explained that she'd been elbowed and had had to leave the House.

Peter Van Loan: Trudeau had 'anger fierce in his eyes' 1:56

The prime minister apologized — explaining that he thought the business of the House was being impeded — and then apologized again, more profusely. The Speaker nonetheless found a prima facie breach of privilege, a matter which will likely now be referred to a House committee for study.

Justin Trudeau apologizes to Ruth Ellen Brosseau 1:43

All of this on a day in which Trudeau's government had already been accused of "tyrannical" and "draconian" behaviour, of engaging in "a vindictive act of spiteful retribution."

"Everything the prime minister ever said about respecting Parliament was obviously a sham," Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer had surmised during question period on Wednesday.

Manhandling Parliament?

At issue in the afternoon was a government motion that would, if passed, give the government new powers to control House business for the next five weeks. This, Scheer suggests, is retribution for an opposition gambit on Monday that forced an unexpected vote and very nearly defeated a government bill and embarrassed the Liberals all the same.

Complaints about the government's new motion had segued neatly into continued condemnation of the government's proposed process for studying electoral reform. 

"Nothing could be clearer, the Liberals are trying to rig the system by and for the Liberal Party," Jason Kenney charged. 

And all that while the Liberals have been otherwise resorting to time allocation to get their legislation through the House. Indeed, what brought MPs to the House on Wednesday evening was a vote to end debate at report stage on C-14, the government's legislation on medically-assisted death.

With his government already having to carry all that, Justin Trudeau decided on Wednesday evening it was his place to get up and take control of a situation in the House. There is some irony in it, the prime minister physically doing what his government is now accused of overly doing with procedure. 

Peter Julian: 'physical force in this House is never permitted' 0:41

What to make of an elbow?

One can now read any number of character traits into the act: impatience, impulsiveness, bravado, pugnacity. But whatever his reason, it was obviously unwise and what resulted was undignified. A prime minister who understands the importance of image might understand tonight as unfortunate. And now it is one more thing his government will have to concern itself with.

If he refrains from putting anyone in an unwanted headlock between now and 2019, this might only be remembered as a merely unfortunate kerfuffle. On the elbow and everything else, he has public goodwill to burn and he has time to undermine any unflattering narrative that might be forming.

But this prime minister was supposed to somehow rise above the uglier aspects of politics. That he would have to get his hands somewhat dirty was perhaps inevitable. But it was already getting a little muddy. And that was before he went and put his hands on someone.

How the 'elbow incident' in the House of Commons unfolded 3:39

In the search for greater meaning, everyone might heed the words on Wednesday evening of Geoff Regan. 

Rising after the prime minister's first apology, Regan helpfully clarified that members were not to "manhandle" other members. But more important was what he said immediately before that.

"Ministers ought to know, first of all, if one whip walks down before the other, and takes their seat, either whip, the Speaker then reads the question and the voting process begins," he said. "Nothing else is required."

In other words, Gord Brown's ability to walk down the aisle should have been of no consequence, at least if Andrew Leslie had taken his seat. And, thus, everything that ensued was entirely unnecessary.

The worst missteps might be those that were avoidable.

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