Trudeau's elbow neither the beginning nor the end of Liberal troubles: Chris Hall

The grab. The elbow. The condemnation. Together, they neatly sum up one of the strangest weeks in the history of the House of Commons, Chris Hall writes.

Prime minister loses control of himself as his government loses control of agenda

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau grabs Tory MP Gord Brown and also appears to bump NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the House of Commons Wednesday. 0:41

The grab. The elbow. The condemnation. Together, they neatly sum up one of the strangest weeks in the history of the House of Commons.

But a little more context is needed in order to understand why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his ill-fated, ill-advised and inappropriate move this week to drag a Conservative MP by the arm through a small crowd of New Democrats, and in the process elbow a female MP in the chest.

That Trudeau punctuated his intervention with a bit of profanity? Well, it only added to his need to apologize. Again. And again. And again...

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologizes to Conservative Whip Gord Brown and to NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau for his actions in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening. 2:21

The whole sorry episode boils down to something like this: The prime minister lost control of himself because his government was losing control of its agenda, and by extension, the business of the House of Commons.

Start with Bill C-14, the doctor-assisted death legislation.

Facing a June 6 deadline handed down by the Supreme Court, the Liberals know they are running out of time. It's why the government tried to strangle debate on the bill with a vote Wednesday, the one that prompted Trudeau to stalk across the floor to — insert your verb of choice here: assist, force or manhandle — Conservative whip Gord Brown to his seat so voting could begin.

But it's not the first time the Liberals cut off debate.

In just six months in office, they've resorted to the tactic on four different bills. A bill to give RCMP officers the right to collective bargaining, like doctor-assisted death, faces a Supreme Court deadline.

Perhaps the business of governing isn't as easy as they thought.

The opposition parties believe they have a role to play, too. To debate. To suggest amendments. And when all else fails, to — again, choose your verb — delay, obstruct or grind business to a halt.

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose addresses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apology in the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The government doesn't want a government and an opposition," complained interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose on Thursday.

"They want a government and an audience."

Of course, the Conservatives did the same when they were in office. They employed any number of what the Liberals once called "legislative tricks" to avoid sustained and meaningful public scrutiny of their bills. Those included massive, omnibus budget bills that contained measures that had nothing to do with the country's finances.

And then there was the time the government prorogued Parliament to avoid certain defeat in a confidence motion. Oh, and the times they introduced measures to limit debate ran into the dozens.

These were things the Liberals vowed would never happen on their watch. Until they did.

Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc gave notice this week that he would bring in a motion that would, if passed, give the Liberals new and largely unchecked power to control the business of the Commons.

This became the proverbial straw on the camel's back. Lines were drawn for a battle on Thursday.

Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc (standing right of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) planned to introduce a motion to give the Liberals more control over the business of the Commons. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The prime minister could apologize for his actions. The prime minister could submit to a conduct hearing in front of the all-party procedure and House affairs committee. But it wasn't enough.

The bottom line had shifted. The new line was a commitment to withdraw LeBlanc's planned motion.

And he did.

In question period on Thursday, LeBlanc surrendered. But in return, he said the government wants the bill on doctor-assisted dying to become law by the Supreme Court's June 6 deadline.

It's safe to say there was no deal. The Liberals will now, almost certainly, miss that deadline because the House of Commons doesn't sit next week.

But the real reason is the tone in the Commons remains toxic. LeBlanc and government whip Andrew Leslie, the two people responsible for ensuring an orderly work flow in the Commons, to shepherd bills through committee to the Senate, haven't done the job.

It could be arrogance, as longtime New Democrat and columnist Gerry Caplan suggested Thursday on CBC's Power and Politics.

Or perhaps it's inexperience, especially in the case of Leslie, the former Armed Forces general but rookie MP. It was his fault not enough Liberals made it to work on time Monday and the government nearly lost a vote on another contentious bill, the Air Canada Public Participation Act.

Political panel discusses potential fallout from House of Commons fracas 12:55

As the opposition celebrated its near victory, averted only when Speaker Geoff Regan was forced to cast a tie-breaking vote, the Liberals stewed, and out of that mixture came the plan to limit what their opponents could do for the rest of the session.

Poke us in the eye. And we'll try to kick you in the butt.

There's little reason now to believe harmony will suddenly emerge in the Commons. As former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien once told his cabinet: We control the government but we don't control the Commons.

The opposition parties know this. The Liberals appear to have forgotten. 

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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