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Flying elbow gave us a flash of another Justin Trudeau

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Flying elbow gave us a flash of another Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau is one of the world’s most popular heads of government right now, enjoying sky-high approval ratings both in Canada and internationally. But the bloom may be coming off the rose for the Canadian prime minister.

First, there was an unfortunate outburst in parliament. The lower house was preparing to vote on the issue of assisted dying. This is a complicated issue, with vexing technical, medical, legal, and moral elements. Faced with a tight timeline, Trudeau’s Liberal government had used various parliamentary procedures to speed up voting.

The house was nearly ready to vote on the legislation. The voting would commence once the Conservative and Liberal party whips took their seats. However, the Conservative whip was impeded – intentionally but not forcefully – from getting to his seat by several MPs from the New Democratic Party milling about between the government and opposition benches.

Trudeau, seeing his blocked path and wishing to get on with the voting, strode across the Commons, took the whip by the arm, and pulled him through the gaggle of obstructing MPs. In doing so, he elbowed a New Democratic member in the chest, causing what appeared to be substantial pain. The incident is now being labelled “elbowgate”.

At first, Liberal MPs cheered the prime minister’s intervention. It was one more move by a tactile, athletic, and take-charge politician. But once it became clear Trudeau had hurt another member, all hell broke loose.

Rough and tumble

Trudeau’s behaviour was unacceptable and unnecessary. He rightfully regrets it and has apologised. What makes the behaviour more noteworthy is that it was a very appropriate metaphor for his more general manhandling of parliament. Faced with looming legislative deadlines – both self-imposed and judicially demanded – Trudeau and his parliamentary leaders have begun to substantially curtail the rights of the opposition parties to critique and debate legislation.

Add to this his willingness to change Canada’s entire electoral system – likely to his party’s advantage and without a referendum – and many are beginning to contend that he looks little different from the previous prime minister Stephen Harper, a man very willing to bend the rules to his will.

The Canadian parliament is a strange place, and one governed by a series of rules and conventions. Some of these traditions and practices are trivial. For example, the reason why the Conservative whip did not simply walk around the group of MPs blocking him by walking down the government side of the aisle is likely because practice dictates he walk down the opposition side.

But these little rules reflect larger principles, such as conventions around sufficient time for debate and review, for the consensual setting of calendars, and for occasionally opposition led debate. The prime minister appears all too willing to manhandle these conventions as well.

Family ties

These events do not reflect well on Trudeau. Nor, at least for some of the population, does his wife’s recent lamentations that she is insufficiently staffed to address all the correspondence and request she receives (a fact I do not doubt).

Trudeau was initially seen as just one half of an appealing pair. His wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, is equally charismatic and charming. They both seemed to possess a grace that others run ragged by the difficulties of managing careers and young children could only wish for. Now that’s starting to ring hollow.

The Trudeaus have busy lives, almost unimaginably so. No one should begrudge them the staff they are afforded by virtue of Justin Trudeau’s position. But voters do have the right to note that he spent much of the last campaign reminding voters that those who make even half as much money as his (already wealthy) family are in no need of government assistance for child care. They are also right to feel duped by his showy refusal to cash the child care support cheques the government sent his family and every other family like it.

The Trump factor

I have my own doubts that these events will hurt Trudeau, in the aggregate at least.

Two facts about modern politics seem relevant here. First, politics is increasingly about personality, and voters are attracted to politicians willing to thumb their noses to authority, tradition, and at the mainstream. Plato observed this thousands of years ago, and we see it today in Donald Trump, in Bernie Sanders, and in Trudeau.

These three obviously do not share the same politics, but all are willing to thumb their noses at convention, to the delight of at least some voters.

Second, voters are not rational and reflective actors. They are motivated reasoners, seeking out justifications for the actions of the politicians they like. We should not blame them for this too much – they merely use the brains nature has given them.

Trudeau is not the first politician to try to bend the rules of the game, and he will not be the last to pay the price for doing so. But we should probably not expect that reckoning to come too soon.