Q9. What happens if an MLA votes against their caucus?

The punishment can range from nothing to expulsion from caucus

A9. There is a whole spectrum of possible consequences for an MLA who votes against their caucus.

In theory, an MLA can vote however they want.

In practice, we have tight party discipline. An MLA almost always votes the same way as the rest of the caucus.

Caucus discipline can be a good thing. Caucus unity makes our political system more stable and more predictable. When you vote for an MLA who is in a party, you have a rough idea of what they’re going to do if they become the government. An MLA can get more done when they’re part of a team.

Let’s suppose, though, that the MLA wants to vote one way, and the rest of the caucus wants to vote another way. What happens then?

If the MLA is a Cabinet minister, the minister must resign as a minister. There is a convention called “Cabinet solidarity” that says that all Cabinet ministers must agree with all major government policies. If they do not, they must resign.  Michael Chong (Conservative) was the last minister to do that at the federal level. I was the last minister to do that at the provincial level.

Apart from Cabinet ministers, the consequences, if any, are really up to the party leader.

There may be no consequences. The leader might just “let it go”.

But in our political system, caucus disunity is usually seen as a terrible thing. Caucus members are expected to stick together. If they have something to say, they can say it privately in a caucus meeting. Once the caucus has made a decision, they are expected to go along. If somebody steps out of line, the leader has to demonstrate to other caucus members that disobedience is painful.

The one thing a leader cannot do is force an MLA to resign as an MLA. The seat belongs to the MLA as an individual. Only the voters can take it away.

The leader has a range of punishments available:

  1. Kick the MLA out of the caucus. This is the nuclear option, so it’s not used often.
  2. Threaten not to allow the MLA to run for the party in the next election. The leader has that power under the Elections Act.
  3. On the government side, make clear to the MLA they will never be appointed to Cabinet. (The same can be said on the opposition side, but over there it’s more of an empty threat, because the opposition leader may never be premier.)
  4. On the government side, cancel or defer any “goodies” that were destined for the MLA’s constituency.
  5. Take away from the MLA any caucus job, especially one that pays extra money. For example: house leader, caucus chair, committee chair, or whip.
  6. Deny the MLA any caucus trips or other perks. Politicians love to travel, so this punishment hurts more than you would think.
  7. Deny the MLA any of the 101 little things that make life as a politician more bearable.

There’s also social ostracism.  You can actually be shunned by your caucus colleagues. That is a powerful force in politics. It’s like junior high, but with grown-ups.

An MLA who is kicked out of caucus—or who decides to leave caucus voluntarily—has three options: resign as an MLA, sit as an independent, or join another caucus.  The expression “crossing the floor” refers to joining another caucus.

Andrew Younger (Dartmouth East) was elected as a Liberal. When he was ejected from the Liberal caucus, he chose to sit as an independent. Chuck Porter (Hants West) was elected as a Progressive Conservative. When he chose to leave the PC caucus, he first sat as an independent, then he joined the Liberal caucus.

 

Author: Graham Steele

A former MLA in Nova Scotia, currently Professor of Business Law in the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University

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