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Politics House committee to review Trudeau’s conduct after Commons spat

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deliversan apology in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 19, 2016.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

What's worse: Grabbing a member of Parliament or touching the ceremonial mace?

That's one of the questions MPs on the procedure and House affairs committee will need to consider as they debate whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should be punished for his actions this week.

Liberal, Conservative and NDP MPs all said Friday that past sanctions of MPs for bad behaviour will be reviewed as part of the committee's work.

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One of many potential consequences is that Mr. Trudeau could be called to the Bar of the House. This would involve standing behind a bar at the entrance of the House of Commons – rather than an MP's assigned seat – as the Speaker reprimands the member on behalf of the House of Commons.

The two most recent cases of an MP being called to the Bar occurred in 1991 and 2002. Both cases involved an MP touching or grabbing the mace, a ceremonial sceptre that rests on a table in the House of Commons.

Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer, a former speaker, said he would expect the committee to take past punishments into consideration – such as for the touching of the mace – and act accordingly.

"It was not just a symbolic touching of a symbol. It was physically touching another member without any justification," he said Friday. "There's no context that justifies that kind of behaviour so I do think it's a serious matter and I hope the committee treats it that way."

Mr. Trudeau apologized Wednesday and Thursday for grabbing Conservative MP Gord Brown and accidentally elbowing NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau, but the matter is not over. The Liberal-dominated committee will be asked to determine whether or not Mr. Trudeau's actions violated the concept of parliamentary privilege.

"I am fully prepared to accept the committee's decision and respect the will of the House," Mr. Trudeau said Thursday as he apologized for the incident. The Prime Minister has not said whether he will appear as a witness.

Given his apology and the fact that his actions were recorded on video, the committee is highly likely to conclude that Mr. Trudeau's actions were a violation of parliamentary privilege. The next question will turn to the potential for consequences.

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The concept of parliamentary privilege or immunity protects MPs from being sued for what they say or do in the House of Commons, but there is a flip side to this. The House of Commons has its own justice system, with practices that are believed to trace back to British medieval tradition.

In theory, the House of Commons could go so far as to imprison an MP or private citizen. This power hasn't been used since 1913, when the House had a committee witness imprisoned for four months for refusing to answer questions. Another extreme option would be to expel an MP. That has happened four times, two of which relate to Louis Riel in the 1870s. The last time an MP was expelled was 1947, after Fred Rose was convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act.

Given that the procedure committee is dominated by Liberal MPs, it is unlikely they will come down too hard on Mr. Trudeau, the leader of their party. The committee will nonetheless have to justify how their decisions compare with past precedents.

Liberal MP and committee member Arnold Chan insisted Friday that his colleagues will approach the investigation with an "open mind" and will ultimately make recommendations for the House of Commons to consider.

"The fact that the Prime Minister took the time to apologize unreservedly several times to the House is part of the overall evidentiary matter that we would review," he said.

The next committee meeting is scheduled for May 31.

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NDP MP David Christopherson, a member of the committee, said he expects the members will give the issue precedence over its existing work, which includes a study of how to promote a family-friendly House of Commons.

"There has been an apology," he said. "The question is, is that sufficient to put this matter to rest, or not? And if not, what next? That's kind of where I think we are."

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