Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is resisting Conservative calls to fire a parliamentary secretary over a tweet calling on people to "whack" Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
Tory House Leader Candice Bergen pressed the issue in question period, days after Toronto MP Adam Vaughan apologized for what he said was just a cheeky reference to whack-a-mole, a carnival game where players smack down targets as they pop up.
Watch the exchange:
Vaughan, the parliamentary secretary to Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, took to Twitter Saturday to note that the Ford government has seemingly backed away from possibly axing full-day kindergarten in Ontario. Ford floated the idea so that Ontarians would focus on that issue instead of "the damage" that is being done to university students, the MP suggested.
"Next he will go after young offenders & end 'free school' in detention centres ... instead of playing whack-a-mole; Let's just whack him," Vaughan wrote.
Though Vaughan initially defended his post and shared images of a whack-a-mole game with Ford's face on targets, he later said in a statement that it was never his intent to "suggest anyone, anywhere should inflict real physical harm to Premier Ford," and apologized to "those who took offence."
But Bergen noted in the House of Commons that whack is also "a mobster term for killing someone, which clearly the parliamentary secretary should have known." She asked Trudeau why he hasn't called for Vaughan's resignation.
Trudeau initially did not answer the comment and instead praised Michael Ferguson, Canada's auditor general who died of cancer over the weekend.
"This is an issue, Mr. Speaker, the prime minister needs to take very seriously," Bergen said again before highlighting an earlier controversy involving the Liberal MP and veteran Tory MP Alice Wong.
'He talks about zero tolerance'
In 2017, Wong accused Vaughan of intimidating her during a bus ride from Parliament Hill over something she had said earlier in the House. Wong, at the time 69, claimed it was a form of "elder abuse."
Vaughan disagreed with Wong's version of events but said she deserved an apology if she felt intimidated.
Bergen said Vaughan's actions clash with the prime minister's refrain about the importance of positive politics.
"He talks about zero tolerance but we have a parliamentary secretary who has done this before," she said.
Trudeau stressed the need for debate to remain civil, inside the House and elsewhere.
"I think it's really important that we all remember that there can be strong disagreements over policy, over questions of substance, but we need to remain civil and keep away from the personal accusations and the personal invectives whenever we have political debates," he said.
Job comes with $17K pay bump
Parliamentary secretaries are tasked with speaking on behalf of their ministers in the House and representing the government at events. Considered junior ministers, they earn an additional $17,200 on top of the base MP salary of $175,600.
Serving as a parliamentary secretary can also be a stepping stone to cabinet. A number of current ministers started out as parliamentary secretaries after Liberals formed government in 2015, including Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor (who both served as parliamentary secretary to Finance Minister Bill Morneau).
Vaughan is also considered a point person on the Liberal government's efforts to increase access to affordable housing, an issue he has championed since his days on Toronto City Council.
Vaughan served on city council with Ford between 2010 and 2014. His frequent criticism of Rob Ford often brought him into conflict with the former mayor's older brother, who would ultimately go on to become the premier of Canada's largest province.
Last month, Vaughan told HuffPost Canada that while he considered making a run for the Ontario Liberal leadership, he believed it was time for someone younger to take on the job.
He promised, however, to continue to take on Ford as an MP and Toronto citizen.
"Doug Ford need not worry about me disappearing into the good night," he told HuffPost. "I plan to be around... to make sure I'm still in office when he isn't."
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Liberal MPs often accuse federal Tory Leader Andrew Scheer of taking his "marching orders" from the Ontario premier.
At a town hall in Milton, Ont. last week, Trudeau expressed concerns he has, as a parent, about the Ford government possibly making cuts to Ontario's education system.
"I'm hoping that Ontarians ... will make very, very clear that it would be a very bad political choice to cut opportunities for students and to cut education budgets," he said at the time.
With files from The Canadian Press