Day 6

You thought 'Elbowgate' was bad? Check out these political brawls

This week, #elbowgate dominated the headlines after a dust-up involving the Prime Minister in the House of Commons. But compared to other countries, Canada's parliamentary fights pale in comparison.
Two legislators ended up in hospital after this July 2010 brawl in Taiwan's parliament. (Nicky Loh/Reuters)
Listen7:36

Justin Trudeau lost his patience. And in the time it took for him to stride across the floor of the House of Commons, to drag a Conservative MP toward his seat and inadvertently elbow a female MP in the chest, he lost more than that. The damage to the Prime Minister's carefully crafted image will be hard to undo. 

The video of the fracas has been played and replayed thousands of time. Unless you know what to look for, you may miss the actual physical altercation. Trudeau's disruption, which is clearly inappropriate and for which he has apologized, unfolds in less than a minute. 

The outrage among members milling around the floor of the house is more easily read. There is a simmering anger. And in another country, the outcome could have been different.  

In some parliaments, with less provocation, the members throw punches, chairs and fire extinguishers.  

They often involve weapons, potentially things like fire extinguishers, eggs, rotten fruits, and the construction of barricades with furniture."- Christopher Gandrud, City University, London

Christopher Gandrud describes the Trudeau elbow incident as "nearly an altercation." He's a lecturer at City University London and an expert in parliamentary brawls around the world. 

"Compared to other brawls that I've seen," he tells host Brent Bambury on CBC Day 6, "(brawls) that involve tens or even hundreds of legislators, bloody noses - it was minor compared to that."

Canada not in the big leagues

So what makes a good parliamentary brawl? 

"Depends on your definition of good," quips Gandrud. "But in terms of large fights: They often involve weapons, potentially things like fire extinguishers, eggs, rotten fruits, and the construction of barricades with furniture." 

The scenes are familiar because they're usually captured by parliamentary cameras and quickly shown on newscasts around the world. Taiwan stands out as particularly prone to legislative violence. 

Gandrud says the Taiwanese lawmakers put on a good show, using furniture and their own benches to fortify their territory in the embattled legislature. 

"Just the scale of them, in terms of the creation of a kind of fort barricade with the parliamentary chairs." 

Taiwan has competition. 

"South Korea has also been traumatic: legislators barricading themselves and members spraying themselves with fire extinguishers. And even an axe was involved, with one legislator trying to destroy the door that was separating them from the others." 

In Ukraine, one member attacked the podium by using a bait and switch. 

"Somebody approached the Prime Minister, as he was giving a speech with a bouquet of flowers, and once the Prime Minister accepted the flowers (he) picked up the Prime Minister attempted to carry him off the podium."

It's the fundamental irony of these things: it is counter to the very nature of a democratic institution, where you're supposed to be fighting with words but certainly not with fire extinguishers and canes.- Christopher Gandrud, City University, London

Fighting for democracy

Gandrud says the most fractious legislatures, places like Taiwan, South Korea, and Ukraine, are usually found in countries with younger democracies and fresh memories of the oppression that came before. 

"Almost all of these major incidents happened in new democracies within the first 10, 20, 30 years of their existence. And in these new democracies people have very real memories of one-party rule military rule and there's a very real threat that they could go back to that."

We can't look away

We expect to find elected members in stately houses engaged in debate. When instead they're flinging rotten fruit, it's shameful, jarring and hilarious. That's why incidents like the one in South Africa this week go viral online and in newscasts. 

"It's fundamentally not what we expect from our members of parliament who are supposed to be engaging in boring debates about procedures and details of legislation," says Christopher. "When we see often times not very in shape people wearing suits throwing things at each other acting like children it's pretty funny."

"It's the fundamental irony of these things: it is counter to the very nature of a democratic institution, where you're supposed to be deliberating and fighting with words but certainly not with fire extinguishers and canes."

Canada, 2016

South Africa, 2016

Ukraine, 2014

Taiwan, 2013

South Korea, 2009