A former leader of the
Liberal Party of Manitoba, Sharon Carstairs
was appointed to the Senate in 1994.
At the time this article was written she was Deputy Government Leader.
This is a revised version of a presentation to the a Canadian Study of
Parliament Group conference held in November 1997
The role of caucus in the
parliamentary process varies from legislature to legislature, and depends upon
a number of factors including size, personalities and whether or not the
members are from the government or opposition side. In this article, Sharon
Carstairs, the current Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and former
leader of the Liberal Party in Manitoba, gives her perspective on four
different caucus experiences.
When I became Leader of the
Liberal Party of Manitoba in 1984, the caucus consisted of one person – me. In
that situation caucus meetings were very easy. They took place in my home, in
front of my mirror, in my car, and in fact they took place anywhere and at anytime
I felt like calling a meeting. It was a very relaxed, delightful scenario.
In 1988 the caucus membership
increased to twenty, and it was at this time that I referred to our caucus as
an adult day care centre – which appalled many of the members – particularly
the male ones. However, the reality was that most members had never been in the
Manitoba legislative building or even attended a sitting. In fact, many had
been elected without believing that they ever would be.
I remember visiting one of my
candidates the day before the election. I found him in cowboy boots and blue
jeans, with a hammer in his hand, putting up an election sign. When I
asked him why he was doing this himself, he told me he had only four workers
and had less than $2,000 to spend on the campaign. Nonetheless, he won his seat
and his case was not unusual.
My task was to meld a group of
twenty surprised and inexperienced members into a cohesive group. I soon
discovered that there are three types of individuals in every caucus. I suppose
one would find the same three types of individuals in any cross section of
humanity. First you have those who never, ever speak. Then there
are those who have to speak to every single item on the agenda. Finally, there
are those who carefully choose when to speak, and as a result they usually do
so with eloquence and influence.
Out of all of these new caucus
members, the ones who had the most difficulty adapting were those who came from
a City Council background. I believe the reason for their difficulty was
because they were not accustomed to the concept of group decision making.
For instance, the caucus membership would sit around a table and come up
with a policy, but if what was decided was not exactly what they wanted, they
would leave the room and tell the media precisely what they thought the policy
should be. Needless to say, It took a few meetings before everyone
understood that there was something called caucus discipline. While you
discussed policy within the caucus room, when you left you supported all of the
decisions agreed to in caucus, except on very rare occasions when as a matter
of conscience you felt you had no other choice.
However, the time spent with
this caucus was short lived. After only two years, an election was called and
the caucus membership was reduced to seven. A positive side of this
reduction in membership was that the seven-person caucus was much more
cohesive, and more like a family than the larger group. Although, I always
thought if given more time, the larger group would have become equally as
A sense of family is an
important characteristic in a caucus. I remember one instance when one
member of the caucus completely opposed a policy which was developed by another
member, and supported by the rest of the caucus. The member opposed came
to me, and said that he did not agree with the caucus position, and therefore,
planned to be absent for the final vote. I said, that was alright because
it was obvious that he felt strongly about the issues. The vote was
scheduled for 5:00 and at about five minutes to five he walked into the
Chamber. I thought, oh dear he has changed his mind and is going to vote
against the party. Instead, he came up to me and said, “You know we have
worked so hard on this policy that I have to be here to support my friends and
colleagues on this”. That statement signified to me what a caucus family
I also noticed during my time as
Leader of the Liberal Party in Manitoba that there were a few caucus members
who believed in leader worship. They are the ones who insist that the leader is
always right no matter what he or she actually says. It is terribly reassuring
for a leader to have this type of person in a caucus, but frankly it is not
very helpful. If a leader does not hear any bad news in caucus then he or she
will have no concept of the views in the outside world, and may become isolated
from other points of view.
Such discussions provide one
with an idea of what to expect when leaving the caucus table, and are much more
productive than those which consist of telling the leadership how wonderful
I stepped down as Leader of the
Liberal Party in Manitoba in June 1993 and a year later was appointed to the
Senate. Essentially, the Senate caucus experience has been a positive one. It
has given me the opportunity to participate, to persuade, to cajole, and
occasionally, to hammer away at the issues which I think are important.
However, I do think that there are too many caucuses. If I wished to spend my
time talking to Liberals, I could go to the Manitoba caucus, the Northern and
Western caucus, the National caucus, the Senate caucus, the Liberal Women’s
caucus, the Social Affairs caucus, the Economic caucus and so on. But one must
be careful about going around in circles that only allow discussion with those
who hold similar view points. I want to talk to people who have a different
point of view from my own, and who can therefore, challenge my views and in
turn I hope I can challenge theirs.
I think it is much better
to have wide ranging caucus discussions that include both opposing, and
supportive points of view.
The structure and organization
of the national caucus of a party in office is bound to be different from the
caucus of a small opposition party. In the national Liberal Caucus the
Whip, Deputy Prime Minister, Caucus Chair, Prime Minister, and Caucus
Vice-Chair all sit at the front of the room. The dynamic is such that when the
Prime Minister is there everyone is relatively well behave. When he is not
present there is usually a lot more gripes expressed.
My sense is that leaders do not
object to very frank, forceful and critical comments about policy issues.
Of course, if a person walks out of caucus and talks to the media about
that caucus discussion, that is another matter. But members will never be
disciplined or chastised for speaking from the heart in the caucus itself.
Yet, my experience has been that there is not nearly enough vigorous
debate in caucus. I did not hear enough of it when I was Leader in Manitoba,
and I do not hear enough of it at the federal level in either the Senate caucus
or the National Liberal caucus. It is important to remember that as politicians
we are only as good as our ability to listen to our colleagues, and to our constituents.