Whips and Party Cohesion

Hmmmm, still not sure what Whips do but I think this article will help. Click here to read the full article or some excerpts that I felt were interesting.


James E. Walker, Chief Government Whip from 1963 to 1966. commented: “Once you get beyond the taxicab radius of Ottawa, nobody seems to have heard of a Whip. For that matter. nobody in Ottawa, three blocks from the Hill, has ever heard of the Whip either!”1Whips work quietly behind the scenes and their activities are not widely reported by the media, nor understood by the general public. Yet, their very presence in the House of Commons facilitates communication within their respective caucuses, thereby promoting the cohesiveness of their parliamentary parties. To a more limited extent, the whips actively encourage a degree of understanding and co-operation between the government and the opposition parties which is essential if the House of Commons is to conduct the nation’s business in an effective and efficient fashion.

In Canada, party whips are engaged in a wide variety of administrative or management functions directly related to planning and organizing the activities of the parliamentary caucus. Among the activities are:

  • the allocation of members’ offices
  • the selection of members to serve on parliamentary committees
  • monitoring attendance of members in the House of Commons, and the preparation of a duty roster for members to ensure a parliamentary quorum
  • organization of speakers in the House of Commons for parliamentary debates
  • arranging of “parliamentary pairs”
  • communication of information to members regarding votes and attendance in the House of Commons
  • approving requests for members to travel from Ottawa when the House of Commons is in session
  • recommending members to serve on parliamentary delegations.

At first glance, many of the whip’s activities appear to be rather trivial or mundane. However, the issues that must be negotiated are extremely delicate and can influence in more than a marginal way morale within the caucus. Not all members possess the interpersonal skills required to successfully discharge these responsibilities. A party leader must give careful consideration to this in his selection of a whip.

There appears to be a well-established convention within all three parties that permits members to disassociate themselves from the party position if the decision of caucus conflicts with a member’s moral or religious beliefs or if the party position places the member in direct conflict with the interests of his constituents.10 After meeting with the member, the whip may advise the member to consider absenting himself from the vote rather than voting against his party.

The Chief Government Whip has arguments to persuade government members to support the party position, which are not available to his counterparts in the opposition. He can invoke the authority of the Prime Minister, and can advise members that the defeat of the government could precipitate an election. Furthermore, backbenchers may be advised that persistent opposition to government policy could impede their advancement within the party. This may prove to be an idle threat, however, because there have been instances where so-called “party rebels” have been brought into the cabinet or appointed as parliamentary secretaries in order to silence them. Opposition whips cannot employ many of these arguments and must ultimately appeal to a member’s sense of party loyalty in an attempt to contain intra-party dissent.

A member who is inattentive to his parliamentary duties, fails to attend caucus meetings on a regular basis, or is absent from the House without the whip’s permission, will be brought to the attention of the whip by his staff. The whip may decide to approach the member for an “informal” or “off the record” discussion, either in the division lobby or in the Parliamentary Restaurant. If the member’s behaviour persists, he may be invited to meet with the party leader. In exceptional circumstances, the whip, with the approval of the party leader, could write to the President of the member’s constituency association advising him of the member’s behaviour.

If a member continues to neglect his parliamentary duties, there are a very limited number of sanctions a whip can threaten to employ. This has led to the observation that whips have a loud bark but no teeth”. In fact, it was the view of both government and opposition whips that the only disciplinary measures which could be imposed on a regular basis were to deny a member access to the perks of parliamentary life – office accommodation and staff, .travel as a member of parliamentary delegations, or membership on a particular parliamentary committee. Within the NDP caucus, the most frequently employed sanctions are to deny a member the opportunity to ask a question during Question Period, and to exclude a member from the list of speakers which is submitted to the Speaker by the party whip.

It has been suggested that a more appropriate way to characterize a whip’s relations with his parliamentary colleagues is that of a “shepherd” rather than a “sheepdog”. The cohesive and disciplinary powers of the party whips in Canada and in Great Britain are extremely limited. A whip cannot force the party position on his colleagues by threatening to impose sanctions and penalties. The whip must employ his considerable powers of persuasion to contain intra-party dissent and to encourage party cohesion.

Historically, opposition whips in Canada have been more actively involved in partisan debates in the House and have been encouraged to pursue their policy interests and their committee work.

The most frequently cited benefits of the position are more regular and frequent contact with the leadership of the party, access to inside information regarding party strategy, and the opportunity to influence the party leadership on matters of policy and parliamentary strategy. In contrast with British whips, increased status and influence within the caucus, promotional opportunities and the excitement associated with the position are less frequently cited by Canadian whips as benefits associated with the position.

The Whip’s Office

During the past decade, the leadership of each party has placed greater demands on the whip’s office for more precise information regarding the attentiveness of caucus members to their parliamentary duties. The Chief Government Whip in particular must be in a position each day to advise both the Prime Minister and the House leader as to the number of members present and accounted for within the government caucus, as well as the number of members who are paired with a parliamentary colleague. Parliamentary strategy and tactics could be influenced as a result of the information provided by the whip.

2. Preparation of attendance book: Each morning the Chief Government Whip meets with his staff to review the parliamentary agenda, to discuss parliamentary strategy and tactics, and to assess currents of opinion within both the government and opposition caucuses.

5. Report to caucus: At each weekly caucus meeting, the party whip will present his report to caucus. The Whip’s Report is an important event because it is the only occasion when the whip can speak to the entire caucus. The whip will use the opportunity to advise members of forthcoming votes and debates, and to encourage their attendance in the House. While it has not been a practice to discuss the attentiveness of particular members to their parliamentary duties, the whip can use the occasion to build morale within the caucus, and to encourage members to participate more effectively in committees or in debates within the House itself.


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