Elbow blunder could stick to smooth-sailing Trudeau like a barnacle: Neil Macdonald

Justin Trudeau had been enjoying smooth sailing as prime minister until he barged his way into a crowd in the House of Commons this week. It could prove to be the kind of mistake that slows him down, Neil Macdonald writes.

Mistakes like the prime minister's behaviour this week add up and may slow him down

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized repeatedly for his behaviour in the House of Commons this week. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

If you go back and look at the video, and we all have, you can pretty much tell from the look on Justin Trudeau's face what he thought he was doing.

He was going to be the adult in the room/stern schoolteacher/man of action who would, in a single decisive stroke, end the NDP childishness that was impeding the people's business.

And it's true, there was some childish obstructionism going on, and had he been extracting his own party whip from it, he might have come off as a grownup who doesn't suffer fools.

Instead, he grabbed the Conservative whip — actually laid hands on a political opponent — and managed to blunder physically into a female New Democrat, and wound up looking rather immature, which was only amplified by his frantically obsequious, stammering apologies later, as the opposition parties howled umbrage.

Justin Trudeau's actions cause uproar in House

6 years ago
Duration 0:42
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.

Why would he do such a thing? Why would he barge in, elbows up, cursing, after so expertly setting himself up as a zen, feminist, yoga-planking empath who personifies tolerance and respect and, to use a word even he must be getting sick of hearing by now, sunniness?

Well, sometimes the curtain just parts, and you get a look behind it.

Trudeau has been impetuously foul-mouthed before (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but at odds with his sensitive New Age aura), and of course he's a boxer, which provides an outlet if you're prone to surges of aggression.

It's interesting when that curtain parts.

Jean Chrétien once lost his temper and grabbed a protester by the throat, something that almost certainly would have landed a non-prime minister before a judge.

In this television image, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien grapples with protester Bill Clennett during flag day in Hull, Que., on Feb.15, 1996. (The Canadian Press)

And Pierre Trudeau, who held a black belt in judo, once actually shoved a reporter, Jim Munson of CTV News. (Munson shoved back, and Trudeau senior, who wore his arrogant combativeness like a lapel rose, later just shrugged about the exchange.)

But parsing Justin Trudeau's motive is ultimately guesswork.

What is fairly certain is that Trudeau is currently swimming in such a deep, warm reservoir of public approval that he probably thinks he can get away with more than most politicians.

If so, he's probably right.

Some Liberal partisans have no doubt already talked themselves into believing the whole episode was the opposition's fault, or even that Trudeau was the victim.

And the people who can't stand him, the ones afflicted by Trudeau Derangement Syndrome, will just hate him a little more.

But thinking that the goodwill is limitless, says Darrell Bricker of Ipsos, is a serious mistake.

Bricker, who's been polling people on behalf of politicians for decades, says Trudeau has had a better start than any prime minister in modern history.

Just as Barack Obama, in his early days, benefited simply by not being George W. Bush, Justin Trudeau makes a lot of people happy just by not being Stephen Harper.

"People have been really enjoying the change," says Bricker. "They've sort of been coming out of the basement. But does that mean there has been a wholesale voter buy-in of the Liberals' entire agenda? Not really."

In fact, as the political aphorism puts it, what makes you strong makes you weak.

Bricker thinks Trudeau's early successes have been so spectacular that he and his inner circle have begun treating opponents as either "not getting it, or just ideologically opposed, when in fact there are people of substance and goodwill who actually disagree with him, and it is a mistake to dismiss those people."

Darrell Bricker of Ipsos says Trudeau has had a better start than any prime minister in modern history. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Bricker has been around long enough to watch wine and roses turn to sour mash and thorns.

"The cuts and bruises all governments suffer always start somewhere. They're like barnacles. They create drag, and they slow you down, and they can eventually sink you."

There is no doubt that the opposition parties, like a basketball player on the gym floor putting on a big show after a foul, have been trying to extract the maximum penalty.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was furious after the prime minister elbowed NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the House earlier this week. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

You can't blame them for that; they've been so steamrolled by Trudeau sunshine since last fall that ineffectual barely describes their Commons performances.

And Tom Mulcair's inchoate face-to-face eruption at Trudeau — "You're PATHETIC!" — was sort of understandable, too. The fellow he tried to treat as a bothersome kid during the election not only smashed Mulcair's career, he did it by squatting in NDP policy territory.

To frame what the prime minister did as a targeted attack on a woman, though, is dubious. He was clearly so absorbed in being the teacher refereeing recess, grabbing and shoving, that he could just as easily have elbowed a male MP.

Still, after blustering in where he had no business going, Justin Trudeau may now want to run a hand over his rump, and check for barnacles.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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