Skip to main content

Oh, fuddle duddle. There goes the brand.

Until Wednesday night, it was shaping up as such a good week. There was Justin in a tête-à-tête with the Aga Khan, discussing pluralism, diversity, and respect for human rights. There he was, boldly championing the rights of transgender people. There he was, apologizing for the "great injustice" of the 1914 Komagata Maru incident. The positioning was perfect. The guy is practically a cross between Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, but hotter and better looking. No wonder his ratings are through the roof.

And then he lost it. He almost started a brawl in Parliament. He crossed the floor, manhandled a member of the opposition, elbowed a female MP in the chest, and allegedly told people to "get the fuck out of the way."

It came perilously close to contempt of Parliament.

The joke on Twitter was that Sunny Ways had morphed into Sonny Liston. But Sonny knew when and where not to throw a punch (or elbow). Mr. Trudeau allowed a fit of pique to get the better of him. Leaders aren't supposed to lose it – especially before the cameras, and most especially when they're performing as leader of the government in Parliament.

And leadership is the question that lingers over Mr. Trudeau's head. We know he's charming. We know his heart is pure. We know he stands for All Good Things. But how does he behave when he's frustrated and impatient? If his instinct is to throw a hissy fit, how will he react when he's in a real jam?

Embarrassingly, Mr. Trudeau was frustrated because he was trying to do the very same thing that the loathsome Conservatives did for all those years – cut off debate, shut down the opposition and take advantage of arcane procedural rules to ram through a controversial piece of legislation that many people think is odious. (In this case, it was the assisted-dying bill.)

When the bad guys did that sort of thing, they were accused of subverting the democratic process. But when the good guys do it, they are simply trying to express the will of the people through their duly elected representatives.

This contempt for the people who are doing the job that he used to do himself was perfectly predictable, of course. Every new government vows to restore civility, respect and transparency to Parliament. And every government eventually descends to the level of its predecessors. Unlike Mr. Trudeau, however, most prime ministers are wise enough to position themselves as slightly above the fray. The dignity of the office demands it.

Mr. Trudeau's real offence was not to manhandle parliamentarians. It was to disrespect the institution. Parliament is a strange beast. It's an unruly kindergarten of squabbling brats. Yet the institution rightly commands deference and respect. Perhaps because he's young and modern, Mr. Trudeau doesn't care much about all that. Perhaps because he regards himself as transformational, he has no taste for process and incremental change. Perhaps because he has styled himself as the People's Prime Minister – a casual guy who's available for every selfie – he forgot about the dignity with which he must conduct himself.

His father wouldn't have made such a mistake. Pierre Trudeau gave people the impression that he was always in command as prime minister – even when he slid down bannisters or executed pirouettes behind the Queen. He was self-regulated to a fault. He, too, was a worldwide celebrity, but he acted as if he could take it or leave it. A lot of people hated his guts, but he didn't seem to care. Sometimes his son seems a bit too needy about all that.

Pierre was also a master of clever invective. He had the knack of showing contempt for parliamentarians without actually showing contempt for Parliament. Back in 1971 (when the f-off bomb was far more vulgar than it is today), Pierre allegedly uttered, or perhaps mouthed, those very words to two particularly annoying members of the opposition. His exchange with reporters on the matter became an instant classic:

"I didn't say anything," he insisted. "If these guys want to read lips and they want to see something into it, you know that's their problem." When a reporter asked him, "What were you thinking … when you moved your lips?" he responded, "What is the nature of your thoughts, gentlemen, when you say 'fuddle duddle' or something like that?"

Pierre was able to disarm people with his wit and cheek. Justin has disarmed people with his sunny ways and one-armed pushups. No one ever expected him to strong-arm them. His petulant breach of protocol and manners comes as a nasty surprise, because we've never seen that side of him before. Is it an aberration? Or is it a real flaw in his temperament? If so, it's not trivial. His discipline and his emotional intelligence failed him in a very public place. And it was a very easy test.

Interact with The Globe