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Trudeau’s sunny ways image takes a major hit

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers remarks at the Komagata Maru Apology reception, Wednesday May 18, 2016 in Ottawa.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

This was the moment when the sunny ways were brushed aside in a mood of petulance. Left behind was the image of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau striding across the Commons to grab the Conservative whip by the arm, bumping heavily into New Democrat MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau.

The promise of a new tone for Parliament seemed to snap suddenly. Mr. Trudeau was left to apologize: He realized, he said later, after a shaken Ms. Brosseau returned to the Commons, that his actions were inadvisable. Opposition MPs still lined up to express outrage. Liberal MPs looked shaken, too: Ontario MP Deb Schulte's face appeared drawn as she stood up to say Mr. Trudeau had not intended to jostle Ms. Brosseau.

The moment conflicted so jarringly with the Justin Trudeau image of a cheerful, collaborative leader: He strode across the floor, with a head of steam, to assert, physically, that he was in charge. With Ms. Brosseau's face showing pain, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair angrily called Mr. Trudeau "pathetic."

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Suffice to say, this has never happened before. Prime ministers just aren't admonished by the Speaker of the House of Commons for "manhandling" a member of Parliament on the floor of the chamber, as Mr. Trudeau was. Mr. Trudeau looked shocked, too, when he stood in his place in the Commons to apologize "unreservedly" for what he had done. Mr. Trudeau offered an explanation, too, but opposition MPs hooted that down as excuses.

It all came on top of frustrations that spilled over on a testy day in Parliament. Mr. Trudeau's ill-temper symbolized the way his government has responded to the problems of legislating in Parliament. By the time they were sitting in the Commons on Wednesday night, MPs were already thumbing their noses at each other.

The opposition had been hissing and spitting over the government's plan to pass a motion to short-circuit parliamentary rules to give the government extensive control over procedure, and more power to pass bills quickly. And the Liberals had introduced a time-allocation motion to cut off the latest round of debate on Bill C-14, the legislation on assisted dying.

And then came time for MPs to return to their seats again to vote. Usually, a vote happens when the government and opposition whips take their seats. But this vote was not starting because Conservative Whip Gord Brown was having a hard time getting to his place: a group of New Democrat MPs was in the way. Mr. Trudeau marched over, reached into the crowd to grab Mr. Brown by the arm and pull him through – in the process, knocking into Ms. Brousseau.

Elbowing Ms. Brosseau did look like an accident. The brusque reach into the crowd to grab Mr. Brown was entirely intentional, however. He did not take a swing, but he did lose his temper and get physical. It might have been the right level of force for breaking up a barroom brawl, but not for the floor of the Commons.

"It is inappropriate for a community centre," NDP House Leader Peter Julian said. "It is inappropriate in any main street or in a park."

Even before Mr. Trudeau lost his temper, his government was already starting to exhibit a petulance in Parliament rather than the new tone of collaboration they had promised. The troubles with legislation seemed to cloud the sunny ways.

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The unprecedented motion, Government Business No. 6, would suspend more than a dozen parliamentary rules until the end of the spring sitting to allow ministers more control over when bills are debated, allowing them to extend debate all night or stop it.

It was the government's way of showing the opposition who was boss. On Monday, the Liberals almost lost a vote – Mr. Regan cast a tie-breaker – and as the spring sitting winds down, the government had grown frustrated its bills are not moving faster.

But that was the arcane world of procedure. Mr. Trudeau's irritated, petty grab into a crowd of MPs will be seen across the country. What many Canadians had embraced about this Prime Minister was the change of tone he brought to politics, and to government. The tone shifted in a moment on Wednesday, and that is likely to be a lingering problem for Mr. Trudeau.

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