On May 18, before a vote on legislation related to assisted death, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau incited a fracas with other MPs in the House of Commons. Trudeau strode forward purposefully, wading through a small crowd of MPs to grab opposition whip Gord Brown’s arm while, according to NDP MP Tracey Ramsey, swearing. As he would attempt to explain later, Trudeau tried to “assist” Brown to his seat for the vote. Brown did not find his assistance welcome and, in the crowd of bodies, Trudeau inadvertently elbowed NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the chest. The episode devolved into a shouting match, with Thomas Mulcair calling Trudeau “pathetic.” Afterwards, opposition MPs lambasted the Prime Minister.
Take it as a given that whatever offense Trudeau may have given has been elevated to a Greek tragedy at this point. That is just politics. The opposition MPs will bring this incident up for the foreseeable future. Regardless, it is still a serious incident.
Brosseau, who had to leave the chamber and missed the vote, felt genuinely affected by Trudeau’s conduct. Suggesting she should toughen up misses the point: she should not have been put in that situation. While Trudeau hurt her accidentally, he was behaving in a reckless manner. It is troubling that the Prime Minister thought he could make unwelcome physical contact with any MP.
What’s more, he did not even accomplish his stated goal of expediting the vote on C-14. Rather, he briefly turned our highest elected body into something resembling reality television. Now we all have to sit through multiple recaps. How much time could have been saved if he had simply allowed the person empowered to speed up voting — the speaker — to do his job?
The incident is simultaneously surprising and predictable. Part of Trudeau’s appeal are his off-the-cuff sensibilities. Where Trudeau fires from the hip, Stephen Harper had a sniper’s precision. Harper’s messaging was targeted and careful, often to the point of making the man behind the message seem impersonal — even invisible. When he deigned to do so much as (gasp) play the piano and sing, the Canadian political scene was astonished. Trudeau’s contrasting style made him appear more genuine. Now we have seen a display of genuine foolishness. Hopefully it is not the first of many.
If you thought Trudeau was already drawing unmerited comparisons to his father, just wait. Pierre Trudeau became infamous for his use of expletives and gestures in the House. Now the inevitable references to the senior Trudeau will come thick and fast. Trudeau has previously attempted to draw distinctions between himself and his father, in terms of policy. Antics like this will make those arguments fall on deaf ears. The younger Trudeau might fall into the trap that was perhaps inevitable — his father’s fans will become his fans, and his father’s critics will become his critics. Pierre Trudeau’s legacy is often viewed through rose-coloured glasses. Yes, he consistently ranks among the greatest Prime Ministers, but he was and remains a polarizing figure. Thanks to his recent lapse in judgement, Justin Trudeau’s image as a more conciliatory and unifying figure has suffered a serious setback.