It turns out that the confrontation in the House of Commons on Wednesday night now known as “elbowgate” was not only politically disastrous for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it was totally unnecessary.
The prime minister apologized again Thursday morning after he was accused of “manhandling” Conservative whip Gordon Brown in an effort to pull him through a throng of New Democrats, accidentally elbowing NDP MP Ruth-Ellen Brosseau in the process.
Although the incident lasted only seconds, it has already made international headlines.
But a closer glance at House procedure reveals that the prime minister didn’t need to clear Brown’s path, and the whole thing could have been avoided if the chief government whip, Andrew Leslie, had just sat down. Here’s a breakdown of what happened:
Mischief on the floor?
The kerfuffle happened just as MPs were getting set to vote on how much more time the House would set aside for debate on the government’s assisted-dying bill. It’s a controversial piece of legislation to begin with, and the Opposition parties have accused the government of trying to ram it through the House and Senate using various strategies like assigning a time limit to debate.
As Speaker Geoff Regan was trying to set Wednesday evening’s vote in motion, several NDP members, including leader Tom Mulcair, blocked the right-hand aisle. Now, it’s possible they were just standing around chatting, but that’s not how other MPs, or the prime minister, saw it. Green Party Elizabeth May called it “mischief.”
Rising in the House after the commotion had died down, Trudeau explained that like May, he believed the NDP members were trying to “impede” Brown.
“I took it upon myself to go and assist him forward,” the prime minister said.
Where was Brown trying to go?
Before a vote can begin in the House, the whips of the government and Official Opposition must enter together and walk up the centre aisle along their sides (which, incidentally, is why the NDP members weren’t blocking the aisle on the other side).
The whips bow towards the Speaker, then to each other before sitting down. But Brown couldn’t break through the NDP knot, leaving government whip Leslie standing alone at the front of the room wondering what was happening.
Rather than immediately taking his seat, Leslie went over to talk to his leader. It’s at that point that Trudeau stood up, strode across the chamber and reached for Brown.
It didn’t matter anyway
But here’s the thing: it turns out Brown didn’t need to be in his seat for the vote to start. The Speaker’s office confirmed on Thursday morning that only one of the whips needs to sit to trigger voting. If Leslie had sat down, even a wall of NDP MPs six feet high wouldn’t have mattered.
It’s unclear if the NDP members, Leslie, Brown, or even Trudeau knew this rule. NDP House leader Peter Julian certainly knew, however. He told reporters that when the NDP were the Official Opposition, “we tried to delay votes” using the same tactic, and were shut down by the one-whip rule.
On Thursday morning, Trudeau rose once again in the House and apologized a third time for crossing the floor, grabbing Brown’s arm and accidentally elbowing Brosseau.
“That intervention was not appropriate,” the prime minister said. “It is not my role and it should not have happened.”
Trudeau then acknowledged that he had failed “to live up to a higher standard of behaviour.”
The Liberals are still aiming to have the House vote on Bill C-14, the assisted dying law, on Thursday. It must then clear the Senate and receive royal assent, which some senators have suggested will be impossible to accomplish by June 6, when doctor-assisted death will no longer be illegal in Canada. The government has said it is trying to avoid a legislative vacuum.