Skip to main content

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 17, 2016.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

When people accuse the government of "riding roughshod" over the opposition, or of "manhandling" their opponents, they usually mean it metaphorically. But on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, annoyed by a vote that was all of about 30 seconds late in starting, and impatient with an opposition that appeared to be stalling, abruptly jumped up, raced down the aisle of the House of Commons, and literally manhandled the Official Opposition Whip, Gordon Brown, grabbing him and shoving him toward his seat.

To get at the surprised Mr. Brown, the PM pushed aside some NDP MPs who were in his path, notably Ruth Ellen Brosseau, whom he elbowed in the chest, apparently by accident. He did all this while allegedly telling those same NDP MPs to "get the fuck out of the way."

As the incident was ending, Mr. Trudeau's Liberal members applauded and cheered their leader, possibly because they agreed with his new take on direct democracy, but more likely because applauding the PM is their job, and they can be counted on to do it without thought. So much for the new tone in Parliament. So much for post-partisanship. The PM's temper tantrum – what else can we call it? – left the Speaker, Liberal Geoff Regan, pathetically having to remind the House that "it is not appropriate to manhandle other members." Has a speaker ever had to say that? To a prime minister?

Mr. Trudeau apologized without reservation for the part of the incident that initially got the most reaction, his hard elbow to Ms. Brosseau, which caused her to leave the House and miss the vote. The NDP immediately attacked the PM on gender grounds, which may be some kind of cosmic justice, since it's exactly what the Liberals would have done if the shoe were on the other foot. MP Niki Ashton told the House that "if we apply a gendered lens, it is very important that young women in this space feel safe to come here and work here." She said that the PM had made female MPs "feel unsafe."

That overplays what the PM accidentally did – he did not attack Ms. Brosseau, and he didn't do it because she is a woman – while ignoring the fact that this accident happened because of something that was far more serious, namely the PM's deliberate laying of hands on Mr. Brown.

And as of Wednesday night, the PM was being less clearly contrite about that. Mr. Trudeau told the House that while he apologized, he also had his reasons. The NDP MPs were stalling the vote, they appeared to be blocking the Tory Whip from taking his seat – for all of 30 seconds – and so Mr. Trudeau felt compelled to lend a hand to, you know, support democracy.

He was just trying to get to a quick vote on hurrying through the government's absolutely uncontroversial, totally non-partisan, assisted death legislation. And he just wanted to help his good Conservative friend.

"So I walked over to encourage the member to come through," Mr. Trudeau told the House, "and indeed offered my arm – extended – to help him come through the gaggle of MPs standing there impeding his progress down the aisle, impeding our ability to move forward with this important vote."

When leaders start to believe that they don't have to respect or tolerate the politicians on the other side, bad things happen. For all the talk about the need for a new civility in Parliament, there has been little in evidence since the election of the Liberals, and this week was hitting new lows before the PM decided to take it down a rung. Physically grabbing your opponents is the opposite of respect, and while it's clear that Mr. Trudeau lost his temper, other people lose their tempers all the time in public life and don't resort to using anything more forceful than words. It suggests that the PM's post-partisanship may actually be less tolerant of dissent than the old partisanship.

Mr. Trudeau was frustrated on Wednesday night, but as a PM still on an extended honeymoon, with a four-year majority mandate, what in the world does he have to be frustrated about? Maybe he thinks there are better uses of his time than sitting through the tedious business of democratic legislating. After all, hardly anyone is watching Question Period, let alone House votes – well, not until yesterday they weren't. And having to face day after day of opposition MPs opposing, because that is both their job and their belief, is not as much fun as speaking to an adoring audience at Davos, or making the scene in global capitals, or being a guest on an American television program. Out there, far from the machinery of government, the interlocutors are always amenable, and there is no opposition to thwart your will.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated a vote cannot start until the Tory Whip has taken his seat. In fact, either whip can be seated for a vote to begin.

Interact with The Globe