Parliamentary Whipping and the Finer Points of Political Behaviour Modification

Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada

By Alex Marland

UBC Press/2020

Reviewed by Brian Topp

July 7, 2021

If you’re interested in how modern legislatures in Canada really work, Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada by Alex Marland is a treat — a detailed, well-researched and well-written look behind one of the curtains.

The heart of Marland’s discussion is the SNC-Lavalin affair. That scandal famously (famously, at least, in the small village of Canadian federal politics, the unofficial capital of which is the Metropolitain Brasserie in Ottawa) led to the resignation of Justin Trudeau friend and advisor Gerald Butts, one of the most consequential and effective players in the Trudeau government.

All the familiar issues of power and influence in our system of government — communications discipline; the highly influential role of central staff; the consequences of disloyalty and indiscretion; and the consequences to a government losing touch with its own key players — are set out in theory in this book, and then demonstrated through the deconstruction of that single scandal.

These issues are not, it should be said, news.

The tendency for power to accumulate in the centre in the Westminster Parliamentary system has been ventilated for many years. Perhaps most notably by British Conservative MP and then Lord Quentin Hogg, in lectures in the late 1960s and again in a 1976 book, Elective Dictatorship. “Elective dictatorship” has become shorthand for the core criticism of our Westminster system of government — the view that the first minister can pretty much do whatever they want, and that other ministers and members of the legislature will pretty much always follow orders. This occurs, so it is argued, in good part due to the generous toolkit of rewards and punishments the first minister and the unelected folks in the centre can deploy against elected colleagues.

Marland is fascinated by that toolkit and details much of it in Whipped, which has been shortlisted for the 2021 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize. Hope for cabinet promotion. Fear of being fired. Assignment and withholding of speaking time in the legislature. Favour and disfavour in committee assignments and travel. Praise and criticism from colleagues. Warmth or displeasure from the leader. A warm embrace by the party, or a refusal to sign nomination papers. Being made politically visible in various ways, or being made politically invisible. All of this gets a look, with examples.

Marland gives some air time to politicians who were unable to navigate politics successfully, feel that isn’t fair, and blame these practices.

I’m familiar with the story of one of his gallery of victims, some of which was possibly not shared with Marland. That person was a first-term government member, who adamantly and angrily refused to come to an appointment with a senior official because of more important engagements. In consequence, although they didn’t know it at the time, they were refusing to attend a vetting interview and therefore lost what proved to be a final opportunity to be appointed by the first minister to Cabinet. Once this was understood, they suddenly discovered that they were a highly principled critic of rule by the centre; of caucus discipline and teamwork; and of the government’s failure to act on their many important policy priorities. But alas, as they discovered as a lonely and ineffective independent in the House after having dramatically flounced from caucus, the public has little sympathy for, and less interest in, such complaints.

Look at how I wrote the paragraph above. I have disguised the players and the circumstances. Because convention and propriety dictate that I do so; and because I feel a little sorry for a newly-elected person who made career-ending mistakes because of inexperience. Marland is also fairly circumspect. He has interviewed very widely indeed in the Canadian political village, but he is careful and fairly discreet in how he tells his stories. In consequence, this book lacks something of the gossipy juiciness of a really good English political memoir, a ritual Bob Woodward Washington door-stopper, or a glorious old Peter C. Newman bloodletting. Instead, Whipped is a serious discussion of the issues.

Look at how I wrote the paragraph above. I have disguised the players and the circumstances. Because convention and propriety dictate that I do so; and because I feel a little sorry for a newly-elected person who made career-ending mistakes because of inexperience. Marland is also fairly circumspect.

And, having laid out the issues, Marland declines to make fundamental proposals for reform. He is sceptical as to whether our system is reformable and, interestingly, he is not entirely persuaded that reform is necessary. He favourably quotes a leader who notes that elected people are much more powerful and influential than they think they are.

I would sharpen this up just a little: elected MPs and MLAs would be much more effective in government and in opposition if they spent more time focusing on their jobs as legislators and political leaders, and less time attempting to curry favour and promotions — and then sulking if they fail. To put it another way, the surest path to high office is to be a good legislator and politician. Plus, of course, a good helping of luck (being the right demographic in the right location). But, to be fair, they need to be on a really well-led team to be able to do that. Creating an environment that makes this possible is the first task of a really effective first minister or opposition party leader.

As Marland notes, no one in recent Canadian political history did that better than Brian Mulroney, who masterfully deployed a whole other “toolkit” to make his political colleagues feel valued, listened to, and in the loop. And that’s the other side of all of this. A mostly happy, engaged team like the one Mulroney built has much less need of being “whipped”.

Brian Mulroney’s whip was Robert Layton, a Montreal-area MP. His son Jack Layton revered his dad, studied this whole other toolkit carefully, and worked hard to apply it within the growing federal NDP caucus he worked to elect. That the 103-member NDP caucus elected in 2011 never really got to work with Layton — in order to experience Layton’s version of that behind-the-curtain Mulroney magic — is one of Canadian political history’s more interesting tragedies.

There might be a book about that other toolkit, sometime. In the meantime, Alex Marland has contributed a valuable look at the theory and practice of being politically “whipped”.

Brian Topp is a partner at gt&company executive advisors. He is former chief of staff to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, former deputy chief of staff to Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow, and former national campaign director to federal NDP leader Jack Layton.