Alex Marland’s latest book is Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada.
Across Canada, shadowy figures bring order to chaos in legislatures. Every parliamentary caucus has a party whip tasked with urging colleagues to vote the party line. Whips endure considerable pressure from both above and below to be a disciplinarian. While they may have little tolerance for caucus members who go off message, Canadian whips are nothing like the schemers and psychopaths depicted in House of Cards.
The reputation of party whips – already thought to be party enforcers – experienced a jolt from the portrayal of a conniving functionary in the original BBC series and its Netflix remake. The morally bankrupt Francis Urquhart (and his American counterpart, Frank Underwood) uses duplicity to get bills passed. Caught in lies, his antics escalate to murder, spurred by a thirst for power as he strives to climb the political career ladder.
Another take was penned by Helen Jones, a former whip under British Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. In How to be a Government Whip, Ms. Jones dishes out acerbic advice. She recommends striking up conversations to build trust with plotters who are trying to undermine the leader, and advises that whips must be strategic about reassigning office space when an MP dies. In politics, there are conspiracies everywhere, she warns.
In Canada, the constraints of party affiliation on individualism and democratic representation sometimes spill into the news. In July, Ontario Premier Doug Ford authorized the expulsion of MPP Belinda Karahalios from his caucus for voting against a government bill. In February, Nova Scotia independent MLA Alana Paon introduced a bill to eliminate party whips because they promote coercion instead of consensus. Some sitting MPs, including Conservative Scott Reid and Liberal Scott Simms, have spoken out about top-down control. Even so, most Canadian legislators loyally vote with their party almost all the time. They dissent by staying away when the division bells ring announcing that it is time to vote.
Whips embody the best and the worst of party discipline. They unleash a persuasion campaign when a member of caucus is threatening to defy the leadership’s position. This is essential for the governing party, because the government will fall if it loses a confidence vote, a standard that it applies to all sorts of bills to compel unity. Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the chief government whip – currently Mark Holland, Liberal MP for Ajax – is sworn into the Queen’s Privy Council to receive confidential information, but is not appointed to cabinet. Evidently the whip straddles a murky ground between the front benches and back benches.
It is true that whips exert considerable power over backbenchers. They assign committee membership, authorize trips, manipulate who gets to speak in the legislative chamber and decide who can go home early. They and their staff monitor social media to catch politicians who feign sick or pretend to be stuck in meetings to get out of House duty. They relay to the leadership who is a team player and who is a malcontent, which factors into decisions about promotion and demotion.
Yet whips are foremost discreet parliamentarians who have far more in common with HR professionals than conspirators in a Netflix melodrama. The whip performs essential administrative functions. The work ranges from offering guidance about office staffing to co-ordinating training seminars. Whips liaise with House leaders and the Speaker’s Office about parliamentary finances and infrastructure. They participate in setting the daily agenda of House business. As in any workplace, someone has to keep attendance and push paperwork, and personnel need an office manager to turn to.
The whip’s couch is where parliamentarians unload. They open up about money problems and policy frustrations. A whip who investigates absenteeism might learn that a private member is dealing with a marriage breakdown or battling an addiction. Even Ms. Jones concedes that MPs need a shoulder to cry on.
Whips have an added responsibility to stroke egos and boost group morale, especially during controversy or when the party is down in the polls. Along with the caucus chair, they plan social activities and check in on parliamentarians who have gone quiet. Distributing group T-shirts, corralling people to participate in impromptu activities and celebrating birthdays can build camaraderie. Keeping the leader informed about personal milestones and who is going through a rough patch is balanced with sensitivity to maintaining colleagues’ trust.
It may surprise you that caucus officers and political staff can purposely keep the leader in the dark about interpersonal strife. Politics is a fast-paced, stressful business for those in positions of authority. Mischievous opponents are always trying to sow division and media tumult. Acting as a buffer to absorb negative energy helps keep the leader refreshed to tackle broader issues. The chief of staff, House leader and the whip or their deputies deliberate how to deal with internal conflict and obtain approval before dishing out punishment. Ministers and private members who receive a tongue lashing from the leader’s agents can be surprised when a leader acts as though nothing happened.
Fear of being kicked out of the caucus or not being permitted to represent the party in the next election always looms. The real control emanates from the caucus itself. MPs want to know the party’s position on each bill or motion, so the whip’s office circulates vote sheets to follow. Party loyalists are prone to urge a united front, particularly those who have experienced the bedlam of a caucus that does not move in lockstep. They call upon the whip to do something about a colleague who votes differently than the group, publicly contravenes the leader or is the source of public embarrassment. Social shunning from peers is an especially potent rebuke to get parliamentarians to fall in line.
The whip’s disciplinary power evaporates when a caucus pushes back. In 2018, NDP MP David Christopherson voted for a Conservative motion, so the whip removed him as vice-chair of a parliamentary committee. The caucus rallied around the veteran MP. Leader Jagmeet Singh eventually restored the vice-chair appointment to quell the turmoil.
Short of rebellion, what can be done to give private members more freedom? Mr. Trudeau issued instructions last December to Pablo Rodriguez, the government House Leader. Mr. Rodriguez’s ministerial mandate letter directs him to work with MPs “to eliminate the use of whip and party lists to give the Speaker of the House of Commons greater freedom in calling on Members of Parliament who wish to speak” and to collaborate with Mr. Holland toward “promoting free votes and limiting the circumstances in which Liberal Members of Parliament will be required to vote with the government.” History suggests little will happen. If anything, centralized control over parliamentarians is intensifying, because it now encompasses message discipline in all public forums.
Party whips are indeed a linchpin of party discipline. Their menacing job title is woefully out of step with modern sensibilities about treating people with respect. However, we should not confuse the sensationalism of House of Cards with the realities of Canadian politics. In a Canadian remake, Francis or Francine Urquhart would be part guidance counsellor, part high-school principal. The political system itself conditions parliamentarians to be party mouthpieces.
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