Kady O’Malley: Key anniversary for the Trudeau government is still to come

Let’s start by getting one thing straight: Oct. 19 was not, in any way at all, the anniversary of Team Trudeau’s era in .

It marked one year since voters across Canada elected a majority of Liberal MPs. Two weeks later, some of those MPs – including Justin Trudeau – made the trek to Rideau Hall to be sworn in, which makes Nov. 4 the actual anniversary.*

Not, that is, that the historic inaccuracy has done anything to stem the tide of features, lists and commentary on his “first year in office.”

Meanwhile, an arguably more significant anniversary passed without notice earlier this week: the five-month milestone of the depressingly insta-dubbed #elbowgate fiasco.

It’s a date worth noting, not because of the boorish behaviour that seized the attention of the Hill, but because of the events the led up to it.

Tuesday marked five months since the Liberals last used their majority clout to cut off debate – a tactic that then-House leader Dominic had been deploying with increasing frequency up until that point.

Even before LeBlanc moved to impose a hard deadline on the final stages of the physician-assisted dying bill, opposition MPs were already united in outrage over his attempt to unilaterally rewrite the rules to give the government virtually unfettered power to control the parliamentary timeline until the House broke for the summer.

Video grab
Video grabPrime Justin Trudeau walks across the floor to engage Tom Mulcair in the House of on May 18, 2016 in an incident later referred to as “elbowgate.”

When it came time to vote on LeBlanc’s motion later that afternoon, those simmering cross-aisle tensions boiled over, leading to a scuffle on the Commons floor during which the prime minister was accused – and not without good grounds – of deliberately manhandling the Conservative whip and inadvertently elbowing a New Democrat MP in the chest.

And while the incident appeared to be a low-water mark for the House of Commons, it wound up serving as a much- check for the government on the risk of reflexively – even casually – exercising its procedural powers.

Not only did Trudeau apologize for his actions, but the very next day, LeBlanc formally withdrew the much-decried omnibus closure motion from further consideration.

“Our objective remains to work with everyone to find the proper mechanism to extend the hours to allow for a more respectful debate on government legislation,” he assured his colleagues, adding that he was “looking forward to working with all members of the House to achieve that objective.”

True to his word, that proved to be the last time he or his government would threaten to put the House under time , something that has continued under his successor, Bardish , who took over the post in August.

She and her fellow House leaders seem to have been able to come up with a workable legislative schedule during their regularly scheduled behind-the-curtains negotiations.

As a result, debates are now permitted to come to a natural, orderly conclusion, rather than being forcibly curtailed by a government-backed fiat – or, alternately, artificially extended by opposition parties for purely political purposes. It is, in fact, precisely how Commons business is supposed to unfold.

The question now, though, is how long will it last, particularly as the clock ticks down to another benchmark: How many bills the government will manage to get through the House and the Senate to the Royal Assent finish line by the end of the year.

At the moment, that number hasn’t even hit double digits. Of the nine government bills on which the governor general has signed off, five are supply bills, and just four represent legislative : the aforementioned assisted dying laws, the first budget implementation bill, some minor changes to copyright protections for material used by persons with “perceptual difficulties” and a revamp of the Air Canada Public Participation Act.

An additional four bills are somewhere in the Senate pipeline, but the majority – an even dozen, in this case — are still before the House or one of its committees.

Compare that to the Conservatives, who had, by the one-year mark, ushered in 25 bills, of which 15 were substantive legislative efforts.

While the incident appeared to be a low-water mark for the House of Commons, it wound up serving as a much- for the government

They had also imposed time allocation or closure on 9 of those 15 bills, including several at more than one stage of debate, and it would take concerted effort not to see a direct link between then-Government House Leader Peter Van Loan’s willingness to override the opposition with the efficiency with which he was able to push through his government’s legislative agenda.

As the Liberals head into what they’re doubtless hoping will be at least a moderately productive fall sitting, ministers anxious to shepherd their own initiatives through the process may become increasingly frustrated by the comparatively leisurely pacing in the current parliament, which could put Chagger under pressure to take a more aggressive approach in her negotiations.

If that happens, she should lose no time in directing any overly impatient ministers to one of the many video clips of the May 18 fisticuffs in the Chamber, as well as pointers to a selection of the contemporaneous columns and editorial screeds castigating the Liberals for veering so wildly off the path of sunny ways.

Five months without having to resort to procedurally drastic measures to squelch parliamentary debate is a good start, but we’re still waiting to see if the Liberals can continue that streak — especially given the potential for a breakdown in Commons relations over electoral reform after Trudeau hinted that he may be ready to drop the issue entirely if the special committee can’t reach a consensus.

If they can make it to May 18, 2017, that will be a one-year anniversary truly worth celebrating, even if it means the list of legislative achievements isn’t quite as long as Van Loan’s.

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* A true stickler might argue that the anniversary is actually Dec. 9, when the House formally demonstrated its confidence in the new ministry by voting in favour of a supply bill.

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