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What Sparked the Parliamentary Brawl?

Plenty of yelling, ties flying, and of course, one sharp elbow. But why?

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 19 May 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders Tyee Builders.

[Editor's note: The hated motion that sparked the Parliament Hill scrap yesterday was dropped by the governing Liberals on Thursday afternoon. Read on to learn the roots of the rumble.]

Call it "Parliament XLII: War on the Floor."

A melee of ties, high heels, brunette locks and beard hair was the main event after a tense day in the House of Commons Wednesday.

And it was Parliamentary procedure, of all things, that sparked Canada's most heated moment among lawmakers on the Hill in recent memory.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ended up in a face-to-face yelling match with NDP leader Tom Mulcair, and that's not even the most controversial part of what happened. (Watch the video here.)

Trudeau was agitated that Conservative whip Gordon Brown could not get past a bulge of NDP MPs, who appeared to be impeding him from sitting down for a vote on Canada's assisted dying legislation.

Trudeau decided he'd had enough of the scene and crossed the floor to escort Brown to the safety and legislative authority of his seat.

In doing so, as video of the incident shows, he bumped into and elbowed NDP MP Ruth-Ellen Brosseau in the chest.

When Trudeau returned to try to speak to (presumably) Brosseau, Mulcair started yelling, as did everyone else, and nearby benches cleared before the two political heavyweights were pulled apart.

MPs then traded barbs the old fashioned way -- from a safe distance in their seats.

After two apologies Wednesday night Trudeau made a third, more formal and prepared apology for the incident on Thursday morning after numerous MPs describe how what transpired "impacted" them.

So, how did we get here?

'Government business'

The tail end of Wednesday may have seemed like an errant outburst, but the day began with news that infuriated both major opposition parties.

Item "No. 6" under "Government Business" on the daily order paper was notice of a motion that would make some changes to Parliamentary procedure, including giving the government more control over when the House sits.

Retired House of Commons procedural clerk Thomas Hall told The Tyee the motion would also override some standing orders in the House that opposition parties use to delay legislation from being passed.

For example: members may submit instructions to a Parliamentary committee examining legislation, which in turn will delay the passing of other legislation in the House by forcing a debate and vote on the instructions.

If the motion passes, such tactics wouldn't be available to leverage the government into amending legislation as it goes through the House, said New Democrat House leader Peter Julian to reporters earlier on Wednesday.

"It removes any possibility of the kind of negotiation that takes place in Parliament that Canadians want to see: a negotiation between all parties," Julian said. "That has always been the hallmark of Canadian democracy and this takes away any negotiation at all."

During Question Period, Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said the changes amount to Trudeau wanting "a government and an audience," rather than an opposition.

The Liberals were also embarrassed earlier this week when they barely passed the Air Canada Public Participation Act, needing the vote from the speaker to break a tie to pass the bill.

Some opposition members accused the Liberals of designing the motion in order to prevent such mishaps from happening again.

Exaggeration?

But Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc said the opposition parties are exaggerating the motion's effect.

LeBlanc said with the extended hours opposition parties will actually have more time to argue for changes to proposed legislation while ensuring bills can't simply be killed through stall tactics.

"All we've said with this motion is that we want to ensure that more members of Parliament are allowed to speak, something that they've asked for continuously," LeBlanc said. "But we also want to ensure some predictability and some certainty that legislation will be able to come to a vote."

So, suffice it to say, tension related to procedure was already permeating throughout the musty halls of Parliament Hill on Wednesday before the brawl broke out.

After Trudeau's apology Thursday, NDP MP Linda Duncan asked if Trudeau would move to rescind the attempt to strip opposition parties of their powers to slow or stall legislation.

"It's important for all of us here to understand why things have become so heated in this chamber," Duncan said. "I'm wondering if, as part of his apology, he will consider reversing the decision to take away our rights and privileges so we may all participate here equally."

In his response Trudeau didn't address Duncan's concerns directly, but he did apologize again.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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