"Arrogance is the Liberal Party's kryptonite," Justin Trudeau's closest adviser, Gerald Butts, told party workers during last fall's election campaign. On Thursday, his friend the Prime Minister, who had been flying high for six months in office, looked suddenly weakened. He had touched the kryptonite.
On Thursday, Mr. Trudeau made his third apology for his Wednesday night meltdown, a real one. Then, at the opposition's insistence, he performed an act of contrition: His government withdrew a heavy-handed motion to assert control in the Commons.
Chastened, the Liberals were quiet in Question Period. Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc promised to work constructively with opposition MPs. Pressed, he said he would try to find a way to allow all MPs to speak on Bill C-14, the assisted-dying bill – but he noted a real, court-imposed deadline is looming, and that matters, too. The baiting was gone. The collaborative tone was back. He was making sensible arguments. And it was definitely better politics.
The Liberals, it seemed, took Mr. Trudeau's moment of madness, his march across the Commons floor to "manhandle" the Opposition Whip and bump the NDP's Ruth Ellen Brosseau, as a teachable moment.
They needed to. Mr. Trudeau's political success was built from portraying himself as antidote to an autocratic prime minister, Stephen Harper, and the new tone has been his government's biggest asset. But riding high in power, while frustrated in Parliament, they displayed arrogance.
Mr. Trudeau's Wednesday night lapse was one sign, betraying frustration, but also a sense he has a right to control. So did Mr. LeBlanc's Motion No. 6.
Other governments, such as Mr. Harper's, have passed late-spring motions to extend the hours of the Commons and take a few procedural tools from the opposition. This one had a twist: A minister would be able to extend debate all night, or suddenly shutter it. If opposition parties did not have their MPs ready to debate any bill at any hour, it could go to a vote. It was an alpha-dog warning.
A government is obviously expected to try to pass laws. In a few cases, notably with Bill C-14, on assisted dying, this one has real deadlines. The Supreme Court has given Parliament until June 6 to pass legislation – or the court's bare-bones liberalization of the law will go into effect. But mostly, the Liberals were the authors of their own frustration.
They were late to legislate. For months, MPs had little to debate. None of the four bills the Liberals consider urgent was tabled in the government's first 100 days, or even before March. Bill C-14, a major, contentious bill that many MPs deem a matter of conscience, was tabled in April. That came after hearings of a special committee, but the government ignored most of its recommendations – it might as well have tabled its bill earlier.
And the opposition games? There were a few. The NDP orchestrated a snap vote that embarrassed Mr. LeBlanc because the Speaker had to break a tie. On the night of the Trudeau incident, the New Democrats appeared to be mischievously attempting to delay a vote on cutting off debate on the assisted-dying bill.
But the Liberals had played games of their own. For days, Mr. LeBlanc tried to have MPs debate Bill C-14 all night, but refused the opposition's counteroffer to debate it until midnight. He could have allowed that, then moved to cut off debate, arguing, as he did on Thursday, that the debate and the deadline had to be balanced. Instead, his manoeuvres, and his Motion No. 6, poisoned the mood. And Mr. Trudeau's fit of pique delayed C-14 for at least another week. They were foiled when they reached for the kryptonite.
Mr. Trudeau's acts of contrition should put most of this in the past, except the memory. The Liberals were caught slipping into arrogance. In the comic books, kryptonite is a weakness built into Superman's fibre. Now, Canadians will watch to see if Mr. Trudeau and his Liberals made a momentary mistake, or if it is in their DNA.