Q37. How can I find out how my MLA voted?

Most of the time there’s no way to know for sure

A37. It is surprisingly difficult to know for sure how your MLA voted on a matter before the House.

Most modern assemblies have an electronic voting system. The MLA presses a button (yes, no or abstain) and the results are tabulated. The Nova Scotia House of Assembly does not work that way.

In Nova Scotia there are two ways to vote: a voice vote or a standing vote.

The vast majority of votes in the House of Assembly are done by voice vote. The Speaker says “Would all those in favour please say Aye?” and then “Would all those opposed please say Nay?” The Speaker judges which side has more voices, and says either “The motion is carried” or “the motion is defeated”.

If you’re in the public gallery, you can generally tell which caucus voted which way. Otherwise, you can’t. There is no record of how your MLA voted, or whether your MLA was even there.

A standing vote may be requested by any two MLAs. There are three reasons why a standing vote might be requested:

  1. There is genuine doubt about the result of a voice vote.
  2.  One caucus believes there is political advantage in having a permanent record of how each MLA voted.
  3. To cause delay, especially by “ringing the bells” for up to an hour before the vote.

In a standing vote, the clerk reads the names of MLAs one-by-one in the order in which they are seated, starting on the government side. When their name is called, each MLA rises and states their vote. If they are in favour, they may say Yes, Aye or Oui. If they are opposed, they may say No, Nay or Non. If the MLA gives any other answer, their vote is not counted. An MLA may also remain seated without saying anything, but that hardly ever happens. If they want to abstain, it’s more common to leave the chamber while the vote is happening.

The clerk then announces the vote totals, and the Speaker says either “The motion is carried” or “the motion is defeated”. The House then resumes its business, or moves on to the next item of business.

When there is a standing vote, the names of the MLAs voting Yes and No are recorded in Hansard. Unless you actually watch a vote as it happens, that is the only way to know how your MLA voted. It’s not very user-friendly, because you have to know on what day the vote was held, then search through Hansard for that day. If you dig, it’s there.

 

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.