Q38. What is a caucus? What is a caucus office?

A caucus is the MLA’s political team

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A38. A caucus is the group of MLAs who belong to the same political party.

In Nova Scotia we have three caucuses: the Liberal caucus, the Progressive Conservative (PC) caucus, and the New Democratic Party (NDP) caucus. The Liberal caucus is sometimes referred to as the government caucus.

An MLA does not have to join a caucus. An MLA who does not sit in a caucus in called an independent. There is currently no independent member. In the last House, there was one (Andrew Younger, Dartmouth East).

An MLA can also switch caucuses. Even if they are elected under the banner of one party, they can decide to join a different caucus. For example, in 2009 Karen Casey was elected for the PC party in Colchester North, but later joined the Liberal caucus. She was re-elected as a Liberal in 2013 and 2017. Chuck Porter (Hants West) left the PC caucus in 2014 to sit as an independent, and later joined the Liberal caucus. He was re-elected as a Liberal in 2017. Joining another caucus is sometimes referred to as “crossing the floor” because the MLA will sit in a different place.

MLAs join a caucus because they believe they can accomplish more as a team. That is why the members of a caucus almost always vote the same way.

Caucuses meet regularly. Usually they meet weekly. When the House is in session, they will meet every day. The purpose of a caucus meeting is to discuss the political issues of the day and develop a strategy. When the House is sitting, the caucus will usually discuss whatever business is being done that day, practice for Question Period, and generally make sure everybody in the caucus knows what they’re supposed to do in the House.

Caucus meetings are always held in private. Reporters are not allowed in, nor is the general public. MLAs believe that they are likely to have better, more frank discussions if the discussions are held in private. Once the discussion is over and a strategy has been decided, all caucus members are expected to follow the strategy.

There is a convention that MLAs will not talk publicly about what goes on in a caucus meeting. This is not a law or a rule, but an MLA who breaks caucus confidentiality runs the risk of being punished by their leader.

Each caucus is allocated money from the House of Assembly budget to hire staff. These staff members work in the “caucus office” and assist caucus MLAs to do their work in the House of Assembly. That is different from the “party office”, which is established by each political party to advance the work of the party. It is also different from the “constituency office”, which is established by each MLA to assist their work in that specific constituency. Citizens often get confused between caucus office, party office and constituency office. Each has a different function.

If you see something happening in politics or the legislature that you don’t like, and you want to contact someone, it’s often best to start with the caucus office.

Q20. Why do MLAs almost always vote with their party?

You can get more done when you work as a team

A20. In theory, an MLA can vote however they want.

But in Canada generally, and certainly in Nova Scotia, we have tight caucus discipline. The members of a caucus almost always vote the same way. But why? Is it loyalty? Is it discipline? Is it fear?

In my experience, the main reason that caucus members vote together is that they believe they can get more done as a team than as individuals. Caucus unity is more likely to satisfy past voters and impress potential voters. Caucus disunity makes it look like the party doesn’t know what it’s doing and would not be capable of forming a government.

Another reason is that caucus members (usually) genuinely agree with each other. People often join a political party because it has a philosophical foundation (sometimes called “ideology”) that the person shares. The MLAs in a party caucus are (usually) in broad philosophical agreement with each other.

Another reason is that caucus members may be punished if they step out of line.

The way politics is practiced in Nova Scotia, caucus members can say whatever they want behind the closed doors of a caucus meeting. Once they emerge, though, they are expected by their party leader and their caucus colleagues to conform to whatever decision was reached in the meeting.

Sometimes a leader will inform the caucus that s/he will permit caucus members to vote any way they want. This is called a “free vote”.

Sometimes a leader will inform the caucus that s/he expects all members of the caucus to vote the way they’re told, regardless of their personal views. This is called a “whipped vote”.

For the reasons I’ve given above, whipped votes are actually quite rare. Caucus members almost always believe they’re better off, in the long run, if they vote together. They don’t have to be whipped.

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.

In the 2013-17 legislature, 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.