Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada by Alex Marland, UBC Press: Vancouver, 2020, 480 pages
Alex Marland’s newest book, Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada, takes a fresh look at the phenomenon of party discipline in Canada’s parliaments. The book focuses mainly on the post-2000 Internet age, and even delves into the dynamics of recent events such as the 2019 SNC-Lavalin affair and partisan operations under the COVID-19 crisis. It is a fresh addition to the study of Canadian politics, written in a clear and accessible tone yet rife with diligent detail and sharp analysis.
Having conducted interviews with 131 people, including current and former politicians ranging from backbenchers to ministers, staffers, whips and leaders, Marland has created a broad and diverse sample from which to examine the trends in Canadian democracy.1 As Marland explains, although party discipline is a daily reality in politics, it is not one often on display in the public eye, as much of the practices it entails happen behind closed doors: in caucus meetings, in cryptic emails, or just through the pressure of decades of tradition.2 Despite the guarded nature of these political institutions, the Memorial University political science professor has managed to develop a clear picture of the mechanics of partisanship in Canada. He underscores his interviews with other primary sources, including internal party communications. Marland acknowledges that party discipline can be an effective and indeed essential tool in Westminster parliaments, as it facilitates voting for overworked legislators, provides a solid base around which to build communications, develops a party brand to attract voters and develops political strategy.3 Overall, however, he argues that party discipline in all parties stifles the independence of individual members, including cabinet ministers, who are therefore unable to represent the interests of their constituents accurately and with integrity.
As he is careful to talk to politicians of all political stripes, Marland highlights the omnipresence of party discipline. Although he does drill down into the practices of each party whenever possible, readers familiar with the dynamics of Canadian politics may find themselves more surprised by how similar the parties are in this capacity. Marland clearly demonstrates how all major parties in Canada exert influence over their caucuses, framing most votes as a zero-sum game, often to the detriment of the interests of constituents. Although Marland concludes that party discipline is a “problematic necessity”4 in Canadian politics, he has also developed a series of recommendations to improve this political culture. For instance, he notes that establishing coalitions to pressure the frontbenchers, making changes to the parties’ constitutions or House rules that outline the limits of discipline, or broadcasting caucus meetings to ensure transparency are all ways that could reform partisan culture in Canada.5
Although he interviewed a few provincial politicians, notably former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, the focus of Marland’s work is party discipline at the federal level. While Parliament Hill provides ample fodder for Marland’s argument, undertaking analyses of different provincial parties, including those not present in Ottawa, would have provided a more robust picture of the topic. For instance, as of April 2019, the Green Party, which officially opposes whipped votes, forms the Official Opposition in Prince Edward Island. Given the small size of this legislature (with only 27 seats) and the unique party makeup on the Island, the dynamics of party discipline are likely to be far different than those at play on Parliament Hill. Similarly, although Marland raises the non-partisan territorial legislatures briefly as examples of legislatures working without strong party discipline,6 he does not expand on these cases. Interviewing parliamentarians from these jurisdictions would amplify his argument that party discipline is too harsh and unnecessarily constricting in federal politics.
Party discipline has been a defining feature of Canadian politics for decades, and Marland’s book provides an essential update to the literature on this subject in the age of politics via tweet. The broad scope of his interviewees and the subjects they touch on allow the author to explore how party discipline impacts many facets of Canadian politics, from candidate selection, appointments, caucusing, communications, voting and constituency services. Given the constant influence that this practice holds over political actors of all stripes in Canada, it is essential for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Canadian politics to understand the impact of this phenomenon. With thorough analysis of a rich source base courtesy of insiders, Marland has crafted an essential field guide to Canada’s current political landscape.
2020-2021 OLIP intern, M.A. in European and Russian Affairs from the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto
1 Alex Marland, Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020), 31
2 Ibid, 29
3 Ibid, 155-56, 177, 203, 219,251
4 Ibid, 346
5 Ibid, 344
6 Ibid, 24, 176