VANCOUVER – Gerard Janssen remembers the day then-premier Glen Clark was left pounding on a locked door after arriving late for a vote in the British Columbia legislature.
Clark’s blunder in May 1997 nearly lost the government the vote. Janssen, the party whip, punished the New Democrat premier with four nights of house duty and a cancelled trip to New York.
Not even the most powerful person in provincial politics was above sanction by Janssen, who as whip ensured politicians were in the house when they needed to be.
“Members are members,” Janssen said in a recent interview. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a cabinet member or if you’re a premier. You’re an MLA. You have a responsibility to the caucus and you have a responsibility to British Columbians.”
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The whip organizes a party’s legislature members for votes on legislation and enforces party discipline when they don’t attend.
The job is straightforward when a government has a strong majority. But the position becomes crucial when the seat count is tight, such as in B.C. following last month’s election.
The Liberals won 43 seats, the NDP 41 and the Greens three. The Green party has agreed to support a New Democrat minority government by voting with them on confidence matters.
Constitutional scholar Ned Franks said the situation in B.C. will be challenging for the NDP whip.
“It’s the difference between a comfortable, soft seat you can doze on and sitting on an electric fire,” he said, laughing.
Franks compared the whip’s role to “herding cats,” and said a good whip can use both flattery and threats.
In the United Kingdom, where the position originated, the chief whip traditionally has an official residence at 12 Downing Street, just down from the prime minister’s. The name comes from fox hunting, where the “whipper-in” would prevent the hounds from straying.
Jeff Leal was government whip in Ontario in both majority and minority situations.
“My hair got a lot greyer while I was the whip during the minority government,” he said. “During that period of time I wasn’t popular with some members because, virtually, I had to force them to be at the house at all times.”
While in a minority, Leal said he would use “pairing,” where a government and an Opposition member would be allowed to leave at the same time to keep the numbers even.
Leal predicts the NDP minority government in B.C. will fall within 18 months, but the incoming New Democrat whip thinks otherwise.
“Right from the beginning you need to drum into people’s psyche that this is a very, very narrow margin that we have here and there is no room for error,” said Scott Fraser, a former deputy whip who has been a member of the legislature for 12 years.
Members will have to arrive in Victoria on Sunday during weeks when the house sits and even people who are sick will need to show up, he said.
“If you die, you still have to come in,” Fraser said he joked during his orientation speech to the new caucus. “We’ll shine you up. We’ll get you in there. We’ll lift your hand up for the vote.”
The NDP will have to rely on Green support to stay in power, which Fraser said he does not think will be a challenge. The whip’s relationships with the Greens has not yet been decided, but both sides understand it must happen quickly, he added.
The NDP used to fine members who missed a vote $50, which went toward the caucus Christmas party.
“We don’t have that luxury now,” Fraser said. “We don’t have any room for error.”