Michael Bliss is a historian, author and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.
Is an apology good enough? How about growing up? Does Justin Trudeau have any concept of the dignity of the office he holds?
Perhaps not much of one. Most of our recent prime ministers haven't always remembered their high calling either. We'd probably have to go back to the era of Mackenzie King, Diefenbaker, and Pearson to find prime ministers who believed that they had an obligation to behave always with decorum, both within and without the House of Commons.
The arrogant clown in Pierre Trudeau caused him to swear and pirouette on public occasions. Brian Mulroney was not bad in the House of Commons, but debased himself politically over Meech Lake and morally in the Karlheinz Schreiber affair. Jean Chrétien's proclivity for political brawling was well known, though he did respect the House of Commons well enough to stay on his own side of the street.
A case could be made that Stephen Harper had more respect for the House of Commons – at least for manners and procedure – than any other PM of our time. Except that as prime minister, Mr. Harper acquiesced in letting spokesmen like Paul Calandra and Pierre Poilievre debase Question Period almost beyond belief. Government by sneer and stonewalling doesn't make for a great parliamentary reputation, especially not when you're also running an office of the Prime Minister of Canada staffed with conspiring liars.
So it isn't even necessary to go back to the drunken era of Sir John A. Macdonald to realize that the bar of prime ministerial deportment hasn't been set very high. As the Liberals told us constantly in the last election campaign, they knew there was a problem of disrespect for Parliament and they were going to raise the bar. They were going to restore the dignity and role of the House of Commons and the Canadian people's respect for it. "Sunny ways" in Parliament would mean tolerance, respect, openness, the creation of a pleasant and creative space, instead of a raucous, gaseous chamber. That was the promise.
Not many fair-minded Canadians would deny that Justin Trudeau has had a brilliant political career. Right now he strides and jogs and jets across our political stage, as well as international ones, like a breath of fresh air. He's the most handsome and popular prime minister in decades, his political enemies are in utter disarray, his beautiful wife is eager to share platforms and public duties with him. Not even his dad had it this easy.
Perhaps how easy it's all been explains his astonishing lack of judgment on Wednesday. "Who's to stop us?" Liberal minister C.D. Howe once taunted his political opponents in 1951, and how tempted they seem to be to resurrect the idea in 2016. When you're right, when you're doing good things, when you're handsome and successful and have the people behind you, the temptation to get on with it can surely be overwhelming.
And that's especially true if you happen to have the Trudeau combination of arrogance and showboating. The thing about Pierre, though, is that most of his political career was a high-stakes struggle for the future of the country. In office he had to wrestle constantly with separatism, terrorism, high constitutional principle, economic crisis. So he let off steam from time to time in the House of Commons and in withering scorn of journalists who had earned his contempt. For the most part, in the first Trudeau era, like the days of Sir John A., the stakes were so high that a lot could be forgiven and forgotten.
For all his political and media success, Justin Trudeau has yet to win his spurs. His political standing isn't yet high enough that he can get away with being a smartass prima donna in Parliament. In fact maybe he's had so much early success, has been so seldom seriously tested, that he's in danger of ceasing to grow in office. Does Mr. Trudeau really understand that being Prime Minister of Canada, even in these swinging, populist times, is a great and serious privilege?
Let's hope that Wednesday's serious little farce was a one-off. Perhaps Mr. Trudeau was learning more about his office and his own temperament with every word of the two abject apologies he gave to the House. Perhaps May 18, 2016 will feature in Justin Trudeau's biography as a day that helped him grow into the highest office in our land.