Ep #4: Party Time (TRANSCRIPT)

Click here for the Podcast

 

Mark Coffin: "How was that communicated to you that you'd be kicked out of the party? Was it an unspoken rule or a direct?"

Francene Cosman: "Oh, it's unspoken. But there was a lot of heat on me. Yeah. In many subtle ways."

Mark Coffin: "Were you wrestling with the decision?"

Francene Cosman: "Oh yeah, there was it was subtle, it was like somebody fairly well placed in the party would go, you know, 'Give me the hand signals.' And then they'd say, 'Nothing coming your way...'

 

(Theme music begins)

 

Mark: You're listening to On the Record, Off Script, the podcast.

 My name is Mark Coffin  and I’m one of your hosts.

This week on Off Script, we talk to former MLAs about their experience with their own political parties.

The Off Script podcast is a journey through the career of a Nova Scotia MLA, as told through the eyes of former MLAs themselves. The main tool we used to connect with their experience was the exit interview. Exit interviews are a tool used in many workplaces to gain honest, and frank insight from departing and departed employees about their workplace. We used them to learn what really goes on inside the halls of power in Nova Scotia politics.

All of our interviews were on the record, but what we heard didn’t sound much like the usual script.

 

(Theme music stops playing)

 

Mark: Political Parties.

Depending on who you talk to, political parties are either to blame for the slow death of democracy, or they're responsible for holding our system of government together, or anything in between.

Political parties are not mentioned anywhere in the Canadian constitution - the document that outlines how our country and the provinces are governed.

You don’t need to be a member of a political party to be elected to the legislature or the House of Commons, but almost all elected members of provincial and federal legislatures belong to a party.

In Nova Scotia, as far back as we were able to look with certainty (which is about three decades) no MLA has been elected to the legislature as an independent without first being elected as a member of a political party. Those who ran and won as independents only did so after either leaving the party or being kicked out of the party they initially ran and won with.

Political parties are the gatekeepers to lawmaking and policy change in Nova Scotia politics.

There are just three political parties that have formed government in recent history in Nova Scotia, and at the time of production (January 2017) there are only three serious contenders for forming government in the foreseeable future.

Without the support of at least one of these parties, it’s near-impossible for any new policy, budget priority, or piece of legislation to be implemented in Nova Scotia.

But, as we heard earlier in this series, many MLAs we interviewed never started out as the staunch partisans many political observers consider them to be.

 

Consider the story of Michelle Raymond’s, a former NDP MLA from Halifax:

Michelle Raymond: "I was not involved at all. I was shamefully unaware. (laughs) I don’t know if I should tell this story but, one of the embarrassing moments is as I told you I was away at university and came back in summertime. I had been doing some work in theatrical productions and was interested in learning more about theater lighting. And a very kind lighting designer sort of took me on and spent a few days showing me something about running the boards there. And at one point in a break I said to him 'And so what do you do for your day job?' and he said 'Well I’m the leader for the provincial NDP.' (laughs) That was Jeremy Akerman. This was how little aware I was of the political circumstances I’m afraid. Terribly unaware."

 

Mark: Michelle wasn’t alone, many MLAs had no prior connection to the party they would later run for, until they became one of its candidates.

A handful of the xMLAs we spoke with had been a member of another party before they joined the party they ultimately ran for.

 

(Background music plays)

 

Mark: In an ideal world, parties are the places where like minded citizens unite to channel their political beliefs into government, through the creation of public policies, laws, programs and spending priorities.

But on the ground, like many organizations, there are more practical realities that must be navigated in order for that to happen. These are realities that MLAs become very familiar with.

For MLAs, these realities are best explained by understanding four concepts.

  • Contributions
  • Rewards
  • Breaking rank, or acting out, and
  • Discipline


When an MLA goes along with the party’s expectations, they make a contribution.

In return for that, they get a reward, or preferential treatment.

When an MLA does something in ways that is out of step with the party’s preference - they’re breaking ranks, or acting out.

As a result, they’ll face discipline, or begin to be treated unfavourably.

 

Now, before we go any further, and explore some of the ways this showed up for MLAs  we spoke with, it’s worth mentioning that this is a simplification of how things work. It’s always more complex.

 

The first contribution MLAs make is the the work they do to earn their party's nomination in their riding. They’ve engaged with party members - to secure their support in becoming the party’s candidate. Winning the nomination also means bringing new members into the party - more members than whomever they were running against for the nomination.

The reward for this work is becoming the candidate for the party - the party’s local supporters become the volunteers and donors for your campaign, and when the leader’s popularity rises, so does their own support.

But at the same time, being the candidate for the party is also a contribution, you continue to sacrifice something to be the candidate. The candidate will commit to the promises in the party’s platform - something that most candidates don’t actually see themselves until the party releases it to the public. That usually happens sometime mid-way through an election campaign.

The benefit for the candidate - regardless of what is in the platform - is that a candidate doesn’t have to come up with their own priorities, and the ultimate reward is getting elected.

Once elected, they will look to the party for direction on everything from how to vote on legislation, to the speeches they make in the House of Assembly.

The party will offer them talking points to use when constituents inquire about certain issues, and hand them questions to ask of witnesses on their way to committee meetings.

The MLA contributes by agreeing to toe the party line. Part of the benefit for MLAs is that it keeps them in good standing with their party leadership - and we’ll get to why that is desireable in a moment.

But another, much more immediate reason MLAs contribute by toeing the party line, is that it cuts down on the amount of homework they have to do.

 

(Background music stops)

 

Graham Steele: "It's once you get to the legislature or parliament, you find out that modern government is incredibly complex… Again that's another story for another day, about the vast range of subjects that are covered by legislation... It’s crazy the amount of legislation - the complexity of it. The only sensible way to deal with it is to divide up the work amongst your team, and then you've got to trust your team. So you take responsibility for certain kinds of bills, and other people take responsibility for other kinds of bills. And you just have to trust your team. So that when a bill comes to the floor of the house which you haven’t read, and somebody on your team says - you should vote for this because, you may not have read it, you may not understand every part of it, but you still vote for it, because it’s the only sensible way to divide up the work.

If I were sitting in the house as an independent, the reality is I would have to sit out most votes because frankly I wouldn't understand most of the legislation that came before the house."

 

(Background music starts playing)

 

Mark: For some MLAs, the benefits of dividing up the work are overshadowed by the loss of independence that comes along with it.

 

Mark Parent: "Increasingly they began to control what you'd say on committees and etc. And certainly they controlled how you voted on committees, you voted in block for your party."

 

Maurice Smith: "When you go to these committee meetings you're given questions to ask, basically. OK?"

Lousie Crockam: "By who?"

Maurice Smith: "By people in your own party. So that you can ask questions and you're not going to embarrass the government. And questions that are going to illicit... making it look like we're doing a great job. The opposition of course have their questions which will make you look stupid, make the department look like they're doing a bad job."

 

Mark: The ultimate reward for good behavior that most MLAs understand is that a position in cabinet awaits those who play along.

 

Clarrie MacKinnon: "One of the things that makes people a team player is that if you alienate the system you will never end up having a chance of getting into Cabinet, right? So that is something that could be a carrot to a lot of people to follow the party everywhere the party leads."

 

 

Mark: The party’s MLA is a member of the team.

 

(Piano music starts playing) 

 

Mark (Interview tape): "Were there times when you were headed into a direction and uncomfortable supporting the government?" 

Rodney: "Well, I think every MLA and cabinet minister, some of the issues you deal with are tough. But you are part of the team and you ran as part of that team and you have to be willing to make the tough decisions as part of the team. And, like I said, if you’re not willing to do it, then you need to step aside."

Clarrie MacKinnon: "And of course people do have a opportunity in the weekly caucus meetings to voice concerns and to actually take strong positions."

Tim Olive: “They have a responsibility to the team. The team got them here - although some of them used to think that they could have done it all by themselves but they couldn’t have if the truth were known - but you know the team got you here. The team’s keeping you here, the team is looking at the big big picture, and on this particular issue you’re just looking at your local constituency.”

Michelle Raymond: "Yeah team strategy. It's the metaphor but it's also the reality. It was really neat. And so as a female who didn't have team sport experience, that was hard slogging for me to figure this out, it really was. Very hard slogging...

And a lot of people when I arrived were big men who had played football or hockey and they had the team sports experience, which I think was actually probably incredibly valuable to them...

They really almost seemed instinctively to be able to translate, translate into the choreography of the legislature, what their experience as a team player had been. It was very neat, and I really deeply wish that I had that. I really really do."

Howard Epstein: “Party discipline - it's a very peculiar thing. Here’s the argument in favour of it: we’re all part of a team so you have to work together. But as one of my colleagues said, 'We’re not on the team, we’re on the bench. We are the people sitting on the bench. And that’s not quite the same thing.' And he was right.

We weren't so much part of the team. We weren't out there skating and passing the puck and getting the chance to score and actually participating. We were just off in the sidelines there."

 

(Piano music ends)

 

Donor Pitch Interlude:

Mark: This podcast is possible because the people who listen to it are also willing to support it. If you've been enjoying listening to the podcast consider signing up as a monthly donor and pitch in as little as $3, $5 or $8 a month. With a lot of listeners these dollars can go a long way to making the podcast continue to happen and get better.

You can do that at OffScript.ca/Donate

Here's one of our listeners, Lisa Roberts, explaining why she decided to become a monthly donor:

Lisa: "I was elected on August 30th, 2016 in Halifax Needham. I support On the Record Off Script because it's a podcast that is allowing me to learn from a wide range of people who have done this job.

Being an MLA is a crazy privilege. And it's a job that comes without a job description.

I'd love more Nova Scotians to listen to and support On the Record Off Script. We'll be better able to improve democracy in Nova Scotia if we first understand how it works now.

That's why I donated!"

Mark: The whole OffScript team is grateful for Lisa's support. And as a new MLA she's exactly the kind of person we were hoping this podcast would reach and help. I should also add that we're excited with the number of perspective in declared candidates who have told us that they are listening to the podcast as they consider, contemplate and plan for their runs.

Again the place to donate is Offscript.ca/Donate

 

---

 

Mark: The reward for MLAs who toe the line is being a part of the team, and experiencing all of the benefits of team membership. Those benefits include getting re-elected on the party or leader’s coattails, having behind-the-scenes influence with cabinet ministers, and having a shot at becoming a cabinet minister yourself.

When it comes to the influence parties have over the political activities, the team metaphor doesn’t fully hold up to scrutiny, as that last voice, Howard Epstein illustrates. We’ll hear more from Howard later.

Another metaphor that helps explain the relationship MLAs have with their parties is that of franchise-franchisee. Think of Tim Hortons. You can become the local owner of a Tim Horton’s in your town - the franchisee - if you pay a price, but there are certain things you have to do to in addition to fronting the money in order to stay a franchisee. You can’t create your own menu or uniforms. You have to adhere to the national brand.

In return for this, the franchisee benefits from being a part of an established, national company. People go to a Tim Horton’s in a town they’ve never been to before, because they know exactly what they’re going to get when they arrive. The owners of the Tim Horton’s brand can tell their franchisee’s what to do, and franchisee’s do it, because the risk of ‘going it alone’ is too high (that and there’s actually a contract that says they have to).

The relationship between a political party and it’s MLAs, isn’t all that different than the relationship between a national franchise and its local franchisees. Party’s have platforms, and restaurants have menus. Both types of organizations have expectations of what the people who attach themselves to the brand can and cannot do with that brand.

 

(Background music starts playing)

 

Mark: We heard about two other roles that parties serve for elected MLAs: they’re a social network, and they're a place where MLAs learn how to do their jobs.

Elected MLAs from each party end up becoming close friends with one another, and act as a psycho-social safety net in a workplace that can be polarizing and demeaning. Being a member of a political party gives them people to eat lunch with, to get a beer with after work.

If an MLA doesn’t have this network to rely on, their experience at province house can be quite isolating.

 

Francene Cosman: “And you know when someone gets ejected from being part of your party, they're like a pariah. You don't sit with them in the area where you go to have your lunch or a cup of coffee. They're just stuck over there like they've got the pox and it's not... it's really punishing environment. It's a psychologically punishing environment.”

Yvonne Atwell: “For me personally, I didn't like going into the cafeteria to eat, because no one would sit with me. The only person to ever come and sit with me from the opposition was John Hamm, he would come if I was there by myself. If there was no other, nobody else from my party - which is really kind of silly - but he would come and sit and we'd chat and that sort of thing but the others wouldn't, right?”

 

Mark: Most MLAs come from out of town. Their immediate family and close friends live back in their constituency. MLAs are generally in Halifax once a week for a caucus meeting, and 4 - 5 days a week when the legislature is actually sitting, for a couple of months a year.

It’s the elected members of each party, and party staffers, that an MLA would turn to first to learn about something they don’t understand.

As we mentioned earlier in the series, if you belong to a party, your office is in a suite with all of the other members and staffers of your party. It’s not just a place where you can keep all your stuff. It socializes the role that the party plays as a provider, protector and teacher for its MLAs. It shapes what kind of lawmaker an MLA becomes - for better or worse.  

 

Gordon Balser: "They do give you MLA schooling, if you will. The Conservative caucus did a lot of background information for us... There were a number of new guys, and the new guys tend to get together and kind of commensurate and discuss and so on. So there was some advice given. The caucus office obviously has staff who are there to support you in bringing you up to speed on issues. For example, issues in question period or issues of a local nature in terms of your constituency."

 

Mark: The influence of the party on the political activities of new MLAs is subtle. It begins as a learning relationship, formal and informal mentorship, and caucus-led training sessions between newly elected and longer-serving party MLAs and the caucus staff

 

(Now I’ll throw in an audio footnote here - we refer to ‘the party’ to mean any of the three political parties we spoke to members from - Liberal, Progressive Conservative, and NDP. We do this when there wasn’t really a difference between what happens within each party, which was most of the time because we weren't getting into policies or ideologies. Yes, the parties have some differences in approach to governance, but for the most part, all parties functioned identically as an agent of electoral and legislative politics.)

 

Charlie Parker: "There's some training provided, I guess, through the Caucus office. Like, you know, like media training, how to deal with the various media that's out there, that's part of it. How to write a speech, how to deliver what you wanna say."

 

Mark: This training was more practical, and a bit more political than the training that the House of Assembly staff would provide.

For someone who has never held the role of an MLA before, there is so much to learn.

 

Pam Birdsall: "It was not a steep learning curve, it was straight up, it was vertical."

 

Mark: MLAs have a lot to learn when they first enter the house, so they’re inclined to take whatever advice they can get from sources they trust.

 

(House of Cards music cues in)

 

But senior party members, and the party staff who work for them aren’t just helpful mentors. They want what’s best for the party, and in some cases, what’s best for themselves. That might not necessarily be what is best for the MLA or their constituents.

 

Frank: "What a morning."

Donald: "I have no idea how they got this, I specifically told my staff to destroy everything. I can’t imagine."

Frank: "It doesn’t matter how it happened, we can’t make it unhappen, so now we have to adapt."

Donald: "Don't they realize that this is a first draft? All we have here really is a perception problem."

Frank: "We don't get a second chance at a first impression, Donald. You know that.

Now, look, I'm on your side, but Linda is furious."

 

Mark: Kevin Spacey’s character in House of Cards, Frank Underwood, is the hyperbolic exaggeration of the senior party statesmen, a man with an agenda who presents himself as a selfless mentor to a political neophite - idealistic and naive.

 

Donald: "What is she saying?"

Frank: "They want to point fingers."

Donald: "At me?"

Frank: "I told her we cannot do that. I mean you are vital to this process. I'm up to hill with them Donald - for lying, for turning their back on you.

You know, I'm of a mind to say screw it. I'll fall on this grenade myself, just to *** them off. Give me John King at CNN."

Donald: "Wait, Frank. This is not your fault."

Frank: "No, we have to protect your reputation."

Donald: "But you're the man that needs to get the bill through the house."

Frank: "I will-- hang on. I will assign it to one of my deputies, quietly manage it and I'll help guide you through the process."

Donald: "I am not comfortable with this."

Frank: "Well, then what do you suggest we do?

(What a martyr craves more than anything is a sword to fall on, so you sharpen the blade, hold it at just the right angle, and then 3, 2, 1--)

Donald: "It should be me. It was my bill."

Frank: "No. Impossible. Donald, education has been your life's work."

 

Mark: "Frank Underwood certainly takes things further than anything we have heard about in our conversations with former MLAs. But there’s an element of reality behind his motivations."

 

Donald: "The truth is my heart is not in this fight. You know me - I'm not a wheeler dealer.  I can put my mind to policy but I’m no good at this brand of politics."

Frank: "Well if not you, than who?"

Donald: "It should be you, Frank. You’re formidable. People respect you, they follow your lead. Let me be on the sidelines for this."

Frank: "Well I could only consider that as an option if I knew that I could still come to you for council."

Donald: "Of course. Whatever you need."

 

(House of Cards music fades out)

 

 

Francene Cosman: “I hated losing my independence, having to vote the party line, as our system, it's our British inherited system, and I found that very difficult because I'm very much an independent thinker. So that was the toughest role for me, was learning to toe the party line.”

 

Mark: When she first entered the legislature, Francence Cosman served as the caucus whip for the Savage government. Each party in the house has a whip. That person is the MLA whose job it is to ensure that everyone in caucus votes according to party line, and shows up to vote when they are needed.

Francene felt conflicted about taking on this role, since she didn’t fully agree with everything the party stood for, but through it she found that she wasn’t the only one in her caucus who didn’t always want to do what they were told.

 

Francene: "There were a few times with members who were what I would say renegades, and I had to do quite a bit of talking with those members. And Fridays were desperate days to hold the House together because everybody wanted to bootle off to their constituencies and get home for the weekend and, I mean, Cape Breton is a long drive. And it was very difficult to hold the House voting together on a Friday because the members wanted to leave."

 

Mark: Many MLAs do what they are told in hopes that it will help them end up in cabinet someday. Francene couldn’t offer rogue MLAs a seat at the Cabinet table, but she could offer them something else.

 

Francene: “I used to bribe some of them with chocolate bars -- 'Stay at least til one o'clock. I'll get you your lunch or I'll get you chocolate bars. What does it take to keep you happy, sitting in your seat numb?' You know? (laughs)

Mark (Interview tape): "Wow, I guess it sounds like the job was more keeping them there, versus keeping them in line."

Francene: "It was both. We had some difficult times with some of the members and I won’t name them but, there were difficult times, and some of them later sat as independent so, (giggles) yeah."

 

Mark: Before she entered provincial politics, Francene had been mayor of Bedford.

When she campaigned as a Liberal candidate, she opposed amalgamating of Bedford into the Halifax Regional Municipality or HRM. But John Savage, the Premier she served under, wanted to amalgamation to go ahead.

Eventually, the issue came to a vote.

Francene was faced with a decision. She had three choices, vote in favour of the amalgamation, vote against it, or take a walk while the vote was happening.

If she voted in favour of the bill, she’d risk alienating herself from her constituents - the people that sent her to Province House.

 

Francene: “They held a plebiscite in Bedford. But Bedford was only one part of my riding because I went all the way out to the airport and all those communities didn't hold a plebiscite. So, it ended up that there was quite a good, strong turnout in Bedford -- I think it was six out of 10 people voted against amalgamation.”

 

Mark: But if she voted against the bill, she would risk alienating herself from her party, the governing Liberals, who controlled the flow of provincial resources into her community.

 

Francene: "And I probably wouldn't have had any opportunity to succeed on the issues in my riding that I needed and that was schools. I had so much growth out here. We needed schools, new ones, old ones repaired. And I thought, 'there's not gonna be a cooperative response to the needs of this community if I broke with the party.'"

 

Mark: But there was a third option. Don’t vote at all.

 

Francene: "I walked out of the legislature when the final vote came, I was so angry about it and so upset."

Mark (Interview tape): "And when you say you walked out of the legislature when the vote was happening …"

Francene: "Yeah, for the third vote."

Mark: "Right, can you talk a bit about why not vote against it in the legislature?"

Francene: "Well, if I voted against it, I would have been kicked out of the party. I would have been kicked out of the caucus. I would have sat alone like Andrew Younger is today for his reasons."

Mark: "How was that communicated to you that you'd be kicked out of the party? Was it an unspoken rule or a direct..."

Francene: "Oh, it's unspoken. But there was a lot of heat on me. Yeah. In many subtle ways."

Mark: "Were you wrestling with the decision?"

Francene: "Oh yeah, there was it was subtle, it was like somebody fairly well placed in the party would go, you know, 'Give me the hand signals.' And then they'd say, 'Nothing coming your way... you know. I knew, I had a lot of pressure on me. Yeah. So."

 

Mark: When it comes time for a controversial vote in the legislature - a vote that some MLAs may be in disagreement with their party on - it is commonly understood that taking a walk around the block is the polite way to express your dissent.

Nobody can prove that that's why you did it. But anybody who's watching knows that it's true.

Howard Epstein was another MLA who had a hard time accepting his party’s position on certain issues.

 

Howard Epstein: "I certainly absented myself from a number of votes, things that I wouldn’t vote in favour of but chose not to stand up and speak against."

 

Mark: Howard was the NDP MLA for the district of Halifax-Chebucto. He is well known within the party as representing those with views that are far to the left. His views often conflicted with the more centre-leaning views that were dominant during the Dexter government.

He wrote a book on his many years serving as an MLA within the NDP. In it, he describes how the longstanding convention of Cabinet Solidarity became extended to the NDP Caucus during the party’s time in government.

 

Howard: "So, cabinet solidarity is a long-standing, well-recognised quasi-constitutional convention. And the nature of it is that all the members of cabinet have to support, publicly whatever the prevailing decision is. The trade-off for that is that they have been part of the decision making. That is they were actually involved in arriving at the policy. So, it’s understandable that there is this internal cohesion that is sought. What goes along with that is that if a member of cabinet feels that they can’t support it, then they’re supposed to resign from cabinet and get out. But at the caucus level it’s different. At the caucus level, frequently caucuses are not the locus of decision making. The locus of decision making is either cabinet or it’s the premier’s office. This means that the farther away you are from being responsible for the decision that’s made, the less there should be pressure on people to go along with the decision if they don’t like it."

 

Mark: One of the decisions that Darrell Dexter’s NDP cabinet made - that Howard publicly opposed - was the decision to offer financial support for the development of the Halifax convention centre.

 

Howard: "I inadvertently said, outside the caucus room, the dollar number that the government had committed to. In the end, although some of my caucus colleagues initially didn’t believe that was inadvertent, they thought I had done it deliberately 

About a month later the caucus was presented with a set of policies that were essentially caucus solidarity policies that would be of the sort that were essentially written manifestations of the idea of cabinet solidarity so essentially it kind of said, 'Let’s just articulate what it is that we expect from caucus, and what we expect from caucus is that everyone will support the decisions that are made and if you don’t think you can live with it you should talk to the leader. And if you still can’t live with it, you are welcome to go sit as an independent,' …

This was quite late in the government time. But it sent of course a signal to all members of caucus which is, it made manifest what had been probably been assumed before, that there wouldn’t be much tolerance of dissenting views."

 

Mark: Aside from this instance, the party’s influence in controlling its members is most often understated within party caucuses.

Before the NDP had introduced the policy of caucus solidarity late in their term, the hints were more subtle.

Until this point in time, party discipline in the party was exercised much the same way Teddy Roosevelt once described his approach to foreign policy: “speak softly and carry a big stick."

When the policy of caucus solidarity was introduced, it didn’t come from the party’s leader.

 

Gary Burrill: "At no time in any of the disagreements that I ever had within our caucus, did Darrell ever say 'You must not do that. That will not be tolerated.' I think he's far too wise a person to pursue that kind of line of reasoning. And that in instances of this sort, he knew that I understood the what was the nature of that decision, and he knew that I would listen to his arguments and try to take them as thoroughly as I could against the course of action I was proposing. But he was too capable a person to ever say to another experienced adult, ‘You may not do that.'”

 

Mark: That’s Gary Burrill, who served on the backbenches of the NDP during their time in government. As many of you likely know, this time last year Gary was elected as the party’s leader, but serves from outside of the legislature, as he does not currently hold a seat at Province House.

Gary also told us about the impact that friendship and compassion for the role of those in cabinet had on his willingness to break with party discipline on certain issues.

 

Gary: "This would have a negative effect on the work of my friend the Minister of Natural Resources, who had lots of other not-very-nice people bringing negative effects on him at the moment. And I would not wish to be another negative matter for him, so I think that’s a big part of the dynamic.”

 


(Piano music kicks in)

 

Mark: Political parties aren’t going anywhere. It’s impossible to create a political system that prohibits them without imposing limits on freedoms of speech and freedom of association. Freedoms that are guaranteed to all Canadians under the charter.

Like Frank Underwood says, ‘It doesn’t matter how it happened, we can’t make it unhappen, so now we have to adapt.’

 

Can the culture of political parties be changed to be less restrictive, and more open to disagreement and dissent?

 

If so, can that change exist not only in an opposition party - where the stakes are lower for members of a party to have differing opinions. But in governing parties too?

 

Here is some food for thought. The last four Prime Ministers of Canada (including our current Prime Minister) were elected promising more free votes for their caucus members in the House of Commons.

 

And… not much has changed.  

The free votes that have happened under all of them are generally limited to Private Members Bills - bills that can be important, but usually have limited impact.

Any government bills or resolutions are voted on along party lines, and members who break ranks with their parties are disciplined accordingly.

In Nova Scotia, there have been members who have broken ranks with their parties over the years - and they’ve often paid the consequences - but not necessarily in ways that are visible to the public. Without explanation these MLAs will:

  • find themselves with fewer invitations to travel with their party on government business outside of the province

  • They’ll be quietly shuffled out of mid-level leadership positions, like chairing legislative committees, or holding senior roles they hold in caucus - some of which come with a stipend for the extra work.


The last time a party leader loosened the reigns of party discipline on their caucus, was when Premier John Hamm allowed his to vote freely on a government bill supporting benefits for same-sex couples in 2003.

Well over a decade ago and three years before the Supreme Court struck down laws preventing same sex marriage.

To the best of our knowledge, there has been no free votes offered by party leaders to members of their caucuses since.

New MLAs are in the unenviable position of having to balance their commitment to their constituents, their own conscience and the values of the party each time they speak and cast a vote in the legislature.  

From our conversations with former MLAs, we were left with the impression that most of the time, this wasn’t a challenge. They felt confident that when their voice and votes in the legislature matched up with the position adopted by their party, they were also serving their constituency, and being true to their own conscience.

But when the interest of their constituents and their conscience didn’t line up with their own parties, it was the party that held the upper hand.  

 

(Outro music plays)

 

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Off Script podcast.

Tune in next week for a special episode of the podcast, and in another two weeks for a standard full episode.

 

Oh and a quick correction from an episode we aired back in September. Thank you to Kate English on Twitter for pointing this out - We talked about two large portraits in the red room and incorrectly identified them as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. They are, as Kate pointed out, actually King George III and Queen Charlotte.

 

Off Script is produced by Springtide, a registered charity working to make democracy better here in Nova Scotia.

 

This episode is written by me and Louise Cockram.

 

If you liked what you heard and plan to keep on listening, then consider becoming a donor for as little as $3 a month. You can do that at OffScript.ca/Donate.

 

Make sure to subscribe to On the Record, Off Script podcast in iTunes or your favourite podcasting app. We recently went through all the podcasting aggregators we could find and made sure we were listed.

So you can now find the podcast in a whole bunch of new places by searching “On the Record, Off Script” in Stitcher, Google Play, Podbean, Overcast, Pocket Casts and many more that we won't list here.

If we missed one, let us know at offscript@springtidecollective.ca and we'll do our best to get it in there. You can also use that email address to get in touch with us about anything at all related to the show.

 

(Outro music continues to play 'til end)

 

-----

Subscribe to Off Script in Your Favourite Podcast App:

Overcast | Pocket Casts | Stitcher Radio | PlayerFM | Castbox | BeyondPod | Podbean

You can also search for 'On the Record, Off Script' on apps not on the list. 

Don’t see the Off Script podcast in your favourite podcasting app? Let us know and we’ll make sure it becomes available.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Donate

Off Script is produced by Springtide.

Follow Springtide:

Subscribe to Off Script in:

iTunes 

Overcast 

Pocket Casts 

Stitcher Radio 

PlayerFM 

Castbox 

BeyondPod 

Podbean

- and more