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Whipped into shape: new book details excesses of party discipline in Canadian politics

Last Updated Oct 4, 2020 at 2:56 pm PST

Whipped cover (Courtesy: UBC Press)

This week on 1130 Bookshelf, Memorial University political scientist Alex Marland about his book Whipped

Your political career could be over before it has even begun, according to the author of a new book

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – It is election season here in BC and would-be MLAs are preparing to learn the ropes of our political system. But what are they getting into? Can they really make a difference? And who do they really represent? Themselves? Their constituents? Or the party and its leader?

That’s where a book like Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada comes in.

LISTEN: Whipped

“You have joined a political club. That club is going to exist beyond your lifetime of being part of that group,” warns author Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

“So, you need to understand what the rules are, and part of those rules are don’t catch people by surprise.”

That’s essentially what party discipline is now. It doesn’t just mean voting with your party in the Ledge or the House of Commons. Marland notes it can dictate what a politician says and even how they say it, or else.

“The number one rule that exists in Canadian party politics is be very careful about what you say in public. It’s not that it’s written down anywhere, but if you don’t follow that rule, your political career can come to a crashing halt in hardly any time whatsoever,” he says.

“Really, what happens is, when you start paying any attention to politics in Canada, you very quickly realize that candidates and elected officials are not independent. They are connected to a political party.”

This is defined as message discipline. It can include everything from scripted talking points to pre-written tweets supplied by higher-ups.

“This is a fundamental challenge that I think political parties face is that if they’re all giving out political talking points all the time and everybody is just repeating them, then you end up becoming, essentially, robotic in your speech.”

As power becomes increasingly centralized, Marland notes individual MPs have surrendered much of their autonomy, a phenomenon some political scientists refer to as executive creep.

“The executive branch is meant to be separate from the legislative branch, with the exception of Cabinet being a part of the Legislature. But instead, what’s happening is the entire government side, all the government benches, are all promoting government messaging all day long it seems,” he explains.

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The result, he warns, can be dangerous to democracy.

“Members of the government side of the House, so the backbenchers who are affiliated with the governing party, who are not part of Cabinet, they are in a world of essentially becoming messengers for the government.”

Marland isn’t sure the system can be reformed.

“People have been wrestling with this for so long and the longer that we wrestle with it, the more it’s intensifying. Message discipline is getting tighter and tighter,” he says.

“Canadians should be suspicious when political parties are pushing to change the electoral system in a manner that just simply entrenches political parties. So, all of the different forms of systems that we seem to come up with, always end up with political parties having control, when, really, if you think about it, in many ways, what we probably need is a few more independents. We wouldn’t want too many independents, but I would argue every legislature benefits from having a few independents who are not bound by party shackles, who can, every now and then, say something that the other parties aren’t willing to talk about.”

Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada is published by UBC Press.