Justin Trudeau as he grabs the arm of Conservative whip Gord Brown
Elbowgate was an incident in which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was accused of having "manhandled" two opposition members of parliament—one Conservative and one NDP—in the House of Commons on May 18, 2016. It took place as opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) sought to delay a closure motion on the final reading of Bill C-14, a bill to amend the Criminal Code to allow physician-assisted death. Numerous MPs, including Green Party leader Elizabeth May, have suggested that Trudeau's actions may be explained by the time-sensitive nature of this bill, which had to be passed before the Supreme Court invalidated certain sections of the Criminal Code that could have put voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted death in a legislative grey area.
The true meaning of Trudeau’s elbow
So much of what happens in politics can be explained through the language of ‘Seinfeld’. I’m thinking of that episode about the wedding in India — the one that runs in backwards chronological order, so that the audience gets its information about the plot in reverse.
In politics, as in the rest of life, events don’t come completely out of left field. Neither do elbows. Much has been written about Prime Minister Trudeau’s confrontation in the House last week, and the sometimes caustic relationship between the main parties in the Commons. Sometimes, you need to peel back the onion to fully understand an event. To fully understand why the atmosphere in the Commons is so fraught these days, you need to peel the onion back months, even years.
Certainly, the shenanigans played by the opposition parties on the floor of the House — attempting to block the Conservative whip from getting to his seat — are relevant. (The opposition House leaders claim they’re not, because it’s the government whip’s readiness that triggers the vote. Which is true. So why did they pretend they were delaying the vote by obstructing the whip? Because they were being jerks.)
But the opposition parties were reacting to events which occurred in the hours and days previous — when the Trudeau government, which came to office promising to treat Parliament with more respect than the last government did, brought in another motion of time allocation on its time-sensitive assisted dying legislation, C-14. And that came on the heels of the government’s draconian Motion 6, which would have given the government side sweeping control of Commons operations, extending sitting hours until a member of the government — a minister or parliamentary secretary — decided otherwise.
Motion 6 was, of course, a direct reaction to the government coming within one vote of losing on C-10, a bill dealing with Air Canada operations. The government nearly lost that vote because of opposition gamesmanship — or strategy, depending on your perspective. An NDP MP moved an amendment; when it came time to vote on the amendment, the mover was absent, which forced a vote on the bill. Speaker Geoff Regan had to break the tie vote, and the Conservatives and New Democrats had a good laugh at the Liberals’ expense.
Consumed by the quest for career advancement, MPs play the partisan game — offering unequivocal support for the government while in power, using every cheap trick to embarrass it while out of power.
Every action causes a reaction. The Opposition parties were upset at learning the parliamentary committee charged with recommending options for electoral reform would be controlled by a Liberal majority. So they started playing games, such as forcing the snap vote on C-10. Which led to Motion 6 — which would have guaranteed that the government, and only the government, controls the House. The motion has since been withdrawn, but the pressures that led to it, and to last week’s blowup, have been building for decades.
Look, I find it incomprehensible that a prime minister, any prime minister, would see it as his job to enforce rules of decorum in the House and personally assist an obstructed whip. It’s not the prime minister’s House — quite the opposite, actually. The House of Commons exists to hold the government to account.
The government answers to Parliament, not the other way around.
That’s the theory, at least. But for the last half-century, we’ve seen a move towards executive government in this country — slow at first, accelerating lately. Almost 50 years ago, Parliament began surrendering control of the government’s spending plans, delegating that critical and time-honoured function to parliamentary committees — which then put time limits on budget scrutiny. Eventually, budget estimates too complicated to be scrutinized would be “deemed” to be approved by Parliament.
As a direct result, power shifted from Parliament to cabinet ministers who no longer had to defend their spending plans. But large cabinet meetings were cumbersome, so the cabinet committee system evolved. And since bureaucrats and political staffers participate in cabinet committees, eventually all effective decision-making was concentrated in the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office.
Executive government in a majority Parliament context is nearly ‘perfect’ now. Every successive government moves the line a little further. The last government imposed time allocations 100 times and prorogued Parliament to avoid a confidence vote, and to shut down a parliamentary committee investigating allegations of torture involving Afghan detainees.
The government treats Parliament as an inconvenience, which is understandable (as its job is to hold government to account). But it also treats Parliament with disrespect, which is simply wrong — because Parliament has a constitutional duty to fulfill. Omnibus bills, which require a straight yea or nay vote on an entire disparate package of proposals, significantly compromise the legislative check on executive power.
Sadly, parliamentarians have been thoroughly complicit in this drive towards executive government. Consumed by the quest for career advancement, they play the partisan game — offering unequivocal support for the government while in power, using every cheap trick to embarrass it while out of power. Parliament will never function properly as long as all of its members prefer a cabinet appointment to being a MP — to being one of the people whose job it is to hold the executive to account.
The late Jim Travers once wrote: “Prime ministers now operate in the omnipotent manner of kings, surrounded by subservient cabinet barons, fawning unelected courtiers, and answerable to no one.”
So who’s surprised when a politician who holds almost absolute power in the current system takes it upon himself to impose order in ‘his’ House to expedite a vote?
It’s not his House. But it’s the job of the other 337 occupants to remind him of that fact.
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