Whips and chains of Party discipline

Jun 9, 2019 | Blog, Governance | 6 comments

Greens have always said they would not have a Whip. So, why do the B.C. Greens have a Whip? It’s a good question. I’m the Whip and my role within the B.C. Green Caucus is important – especially in a minority government. However, it is not likely important for the reasons many people think.

The Party Whip has a bad rap and for good reason. Traditionally, it’s the Party Whip who is responsible for ensuring caucus discipline. As a result, they are the target of frustration for perpetuating political tribalism – partisanship. Is it the job of a politician to represent their constituents in the legislature or their Party in their constituency?

Party politics serves many purposes. I will cover two of them in this post. Firstly, like-minded individuals recognized they could game our democracy by consolidating their voting power into a unified block. Rather than having to find a broad consensus and earn votes for each and every new law or policy, the goal is to win a majority of seats on election day. With 44 or more seats in the British Columbia legislature comes complete control of the business of government for the next four years. The result is an erosion of representation, shifting over time from constituent-centric to Party-centric. The Party Whip is a central figure in the hardening culture of Party discipline.

Discipline or disciplined?

What is “Party discipline?” In essence, it is the level of control that caucus members of a Party submit to their leadership to support its direction and policies. There are a number of tools that the leadership will use to ensure its members toe the line. Depending on the jurisdiction, it can include continued membership in the Party, the ability to run in future elections, and the potential for a seat in the Cabinet or other ministerial roles. In essence there is a transaction: political Party’s help individuals get elected and in return individuals sacrifice their autonomy for the safety of the group.

In a recent episode of the OPPO podcast, Justin Ling and Jen Gerson interview Jody Wilson-Rayould and Jane Philpott. It is the latest in a growing body of work featuring politicians speaking publicly about their experience with Party politics. They describe an increasing centralization of power in fewer people, many of whom are not elected. They’re people I would describe as political operatives. They are less driven by good public policy as they are in getting their team elected and keeping them elected once they are there.

I cannot speak for exactly what “discipline” other Whips have the power to enforce. In the B.C. Green Caucus, the Party Whip is essentially an administrative role. Much like our “House Leader” (Sonia Furstenau), the Party Whip is an interface between parties and legislative staff. Our roles are to ensure the smooth administration of legislative business.

The only “discipline” I seek to enforce is that my colleagues identify how they intend to vote and/or whether they will attend a vote, ahead of time. As we are part of a minority government and we all agreed to a “no-suprises” clause in our Confidence and Supply Agreement with the B.C. NDP, it’s my responsibility in the day-to-day grind of legislative activity to ensure that we continue to operate in good faith. I must know and communicate the intentions of the Members of the B.C. Green Caucus to the government Whip.

A day in the life

So what does the daily flow of legislative business look like? It starts with a meeting between House Leaders. Mike Farnsworth (Government House Leader) is responsible for managing the “Orders of the Day”. This include the number of “Houses” that are conducting business and the order of the business in each House. During the most recent session we had the main Chamber, a Big House and a Little House in operation.

In addition, there are any number of committees that are also meeting. In other words, in any given day, any one or more of the B.C. Green Caucus could be speaking to a Bill, asking questions in Budget Estimates, in a committee meeting, meeting with constituents or other stakeholders, preparing for any one or more of these situations, or any of the other administrative tasks of an MLA such as answering emails or getting an issues briefing from ministerial staff. There are many moving parts.

Once Sonia’s House Leader’s meeting is complete, the B.C. Green Caucus meets to discuss the business of the day. I receive a copy of my colleagues’ calendars and we begin to map out who is where, when and why? Meanwhile we also meet to discuss legislation that has been previously put on the order papers. We work with our staff and each other as we build internal consensus. In some cases this process moves very quickly, at other times it is slower and more deliberative.


Each of us is the critic for approximately seven Ministries. We are the political lead on any initiative that arises from within our basket. We also have corresponding staff who provide us with technical support, research, preparation for speaking notes and any other aspect of new legislation that is put on the table. In addition, each of us serves as the B.C. Green Caucus spokesperson on the issues for which we are responsible in the legislative chamber, and in the media.

We are responsible for communicating with the other caucus members about our work on legislation. The more controversial the legislation is, the more attention it is given, the more meetings we hold to discuss it and to build our understanding and to see if we can achieve a common position.

In the Chamber we follow the legislation through the process: first reading, second reading debate, committee stage, third reading and final adoption. As you can imagine, it is not possible for all three members to be a part of every aspect of the legislative operations. So this brings me to the second point about the role of the Party Whip.

Balancing act

Certainly the power and control aspects of Party discipline drew like minds together but working in a team allows for government to accomplish more in each session. It’s a fine balance. How much of the relationships in caucus are built on trust and how much is accomplished through dominance, subordination and the centralization of authority into the hands of very few?

Communication is critical in a minority government. It’s important that the flow of information from our House Leader to the Whip is smooth. The action really starts when the bells ring calling us to vote. In most cases the work is done through the process. Rarely do I not have a clear indication of where my colleagues stand on the issues, and whether we have a consensus position on an issue or Bill. If it is the latter, it is very unlikely that government will force the issue. It’s in their interest to provide space and time for us to work together to find a common ground to work from.

On occasion, we have to work on the fly. The most common instance of this is an amendment to a section of a Bill at committee stage. It’s at this point that my key support staff and I are working fervently between the issue lead, staff, official opposition and government to understand what is happening and how the situation is going to unfold, so I can communicate it to the people who need to know what needs to be known.

Keeping the flow

The B.C. Greens have a Party Whip because we need one. Like my counterpart, the House Leader, we are an essential part of the workflow of the legislature. The only discipline that I seek in my role as the Party Whip is that my colleagues share with me their voting intentions and that they are present at the vote. It’s my job to communicate any and all of the pertinent information to the Government Whip or Government House Leader through my House Leader.

We made a choice to maintain the Party Whip. However, I have never “whipped” a vote. I do not have the authority to “whip” a vote, nor do I have any mechanism to enforce or penalize my colleagues for not being part of the team. Despite getting elected under the B.C. Green Party banner, each and every vote is a process, discussion, sometimes debate, in search for consensus.

The B.C. Greens promise to do politics differently. How can we collaborate and support each other through the legislative burden of each session while representing the constituents of our ridings? In the Chamber I am no longer Adam Olsen. My name is “Saanich North and the Islands.” While political parties count that as one seat in the pursuit of gaining at least 44, there are 50,000 people I represent and they come from all walks of life and across the political spectrum.

I hope this helps shine a light on our daily work in the legislature and how the B.C. Green Caucus operates while we are in session in Victoria.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

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  1. Jacob Enns

    Thank you Adam for explaining the roles The BC Green party has to have and how it is done differently than the traditional way of party politics. I appreciate that you do not bring people ‘into line’.

  2. Jason Koldewijn

    Hi Adam. Thanks for sharing these inner workings of Party politics.
    I’m curious where the power of discipline comes from. Is this essentially the individual Party’s rules and bylaws or is there a more formal government rule as a whole? How can we, as citizens, demand those powers be stripped away from all Party whips? I appreciate the Green’s pledge not to “whip” their members votes but it sounds to me like there’s no way to hold you to your word and at any moment you could change your opinion and force other members to toe the line… Do you personally see any way to hold all the Parties to this ideal of non-whipped votes?
    Getting so tired of the direction we’re heading; their side, our side, this side, that side and it only seems to be getting worse and closer to home, driving wedges between more and more people and away from the idea their vote on election day truly matters and makes a difference.

    • Adam Olsen

      Thank you for this Jason. I cannot tell you what powers other Party Whips have or do not have. Unfortunately how other parties address the distribution of power within their organization is their responsibility. For me this is an important accountability check. As I allude to in the post there are actually more subtle and powerful tools that are used to achieve Party Discipline.

      • Jason Koldewijn

        Appreciate the reply Adam. My comment and questions before can be summed up in; Without the knowledge of what and how all the parties handle the Whip’s duties and responsibilities, how do we as citizens and citizens representatives hold the Government and Parties to account and how can we effectively change the rules governing the Whips?

        There are so many issues of our current governance and society that appear to be broken that everything seems to be pointing to a complete tear-down of our current Party and governing structure…. I’m aware a comment like this puts you in a rather challenging spot on reply but at what point do we start hearing these voices from our elected officials and offices?

  3. Dale Odberg

    Most interesting, thank you

  4. Jan Steinman

    Thanks for that description of the process, Adam! And thanks for all you do!


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