by David McLaughlin
The Globe and Mail
May 19, 2016
Yesterday’s altercation between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative MP and party whip Gord Brown and NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau was a collision between youth and age – Mr. Trudeau’s youth and maturity and the House of Commons’ age and traditions. It was a curious loss of cool by Canada’s “coolest” politician.
The live video feed from the Commons floor caught the display: an impatient prime minster determined to speed the opposition’s voting procedures on Bill C-14, the assisted suicide law. Striding across the floor to where a clutch of MPs, including Mr. Brown, were tarrying instead of proceeding to the Mace on the Clerk’s table to bow to Mr. Speaker and announce his voting MPs were accounted for, Mr. Trudeau grabbed the Opposition Whip’s arm trying to propel him forward to complete his appointed rounds. In the process, he inadvertently elbowed with some force Ms. Brosseau.
Be clear: the first action led to the second action. More collateral damage than victim, Ms. Brosseau still had the unreserved right not to be sideswiped in that physical manner. But she never would have been if Mr. Trudeau had remained in his seat.
The inevitable braying by members over the altercation is as old as the institution itself. Issues of privilege seem hidebound and quaint to outside observers but they are far more than that. They remain the bedrock of Parliamentary independence and the inviolate nature of freely elected Members of Parliament. The noise accompanying their demand should not detract from the principle they represent.
There is a reason members are protected from libel in their statements in the House of Commons. There are reasons members cannot be prevented from voting. Even if some of the tribe cry wolf too often, it should not diminish the import of the privilege issue itself.
The spectacle of a sitting prime minister interfering with the deliberations of the Loyal Opposition, however unedifying, is stuff enough for the House to consider this age-old tradition. Mr. Trudeau’s ready apology was appropriate but the House is the master of its own rules and may deem it insufficient.
It is the mastery of the House, however, that is the underlying issue here. The Liberal government has proven itself an uneven, even callous, manager of House business and affairs since being elected. The Trudeau incident is actually the third acute manifestation in one week of their inability to shepherd the House to pass government business.
On Monday, asleep at the switch, they almost lost a vote on a government bill because they failed to understand the procedural rules giving a co-ordinated opposition the ability to field a vote when the government Whip and House Leader were unready. It was tie vote only broken by tradition by the Speaker that turned a major embarrassment into an egg-on-their-face incident.
Following invocation of closure on government bills and the stacking of the electoral reform committee last week, the government then served notice this week of their intention to recast procedures in the House to quell votes and call motions to pass their stalled legislation.
You do that when you are running out of House days, your agenda is piling up, and you have failed to map out a timetable to secure your own business. It is not unexpected in a minority government, but a majority?
The government is showing its inexperience and, at the same time, its oats. It has an ambitious agenda without yet a clear path to getting it through. That leads to frustration, which increasingly characterizes its approach to House management.
Doing politics differently was the refrain of the successful Liberal campaign. “More like the other guys” seems more apt these days.
But there was a whiff of the past coming home in the Trudeau incident. One MP reportedly heard the prime minister use the “the f-word” in his headstrong passage across the aisle.
It was prime minister Pierre Trudeau who famously used the phrase from the same seat decades ago. But when confronted, he coyly admitted to only saying “fuddle duddle.”
In that respect, at least, some House of Commons traditions are apparently still young.