Caucus


Collective term for a group of Parliamentarians, typically referring to those from a political party (a party caucus.) Its etymology is debated – some say it comes from the Algonquin word for “counsel” or a Latin term for drinking vessel. Given the amount of drink consumed by legislators over the years, Parli is more disposed to the latter theory! Caucus first appeared in the diary of future US President John Adams, who wrote in 1763 that a “Caucas Clubb” would meet to choose local politicians in Braintree, Massachusetts. Adams also noted that attendees would “smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other,” potentially spawning the political cliché of “smoked-filled backrooms”!

Federal party caucuses sit together in the House of Commons. Government and opposition caucuses sit opposite one another, a touch more than a sword length between them. Caucus also meets regularly “in camera.” Members (for the most part) vow to respect “caucus confidentiality” and caucus meetings are the best chance for backbench MPs to voice concerns to party leadership. There’s also an array of other caucuses – groups of Parliamentarians bound by geography, ethnicity or interests – from the Maritime caucus to the Outdoor Caucus of hunters and anglers. Charles Caccia once tried to join the Liberal Women’s Caucus, a move that raised eyebrows.

Ejection from caucus is the principal tool that party leaders have to keep their members in line. MPs can be permanently or temporarily removed from caucus for many reasons, such John Nunziata in 1997 (voting against the budget) or Scott Andrews in 2014 (alleged inappropriate behaviour.) MPs can leave caucus voluntarily over a policy disagreement and sit as an independent (Paul Helleyer in 1969,) “cross the floor” and join another party’s caucus (Belinda Stronach in 2005) or found a new party (Lucien Bouchard in 1990.) Members of a caucus occasionally do this en-masse; in 2001 a dozen MPs temporarily left the Canadian Alliance to form the “Democratic Representative Caucus” in protest of Stockwell Day’s leadership. In 2014 Justin Trudeau abruptly removed Liberal Senators from caucus; the Conservatives still include them.

Maintaining peace within caucus is notoriously difficult, as members disagree with their caucus colleagues almost as much as with the opposition. There also can be friction between caucus and party leadership. Though a “caucus revolt” can threaten a leader, he or she is hired (and fired) not by caucus – as in the UK and Australia – but by party members. There is also occasionally discord between caucus and membership, most pronounced in debates over party ideology or leadership. The difficulty of managing caucus is perhaps best expressed by former PM John Diefenbaker, who once quipped that the only difference between a caucus and a cactus is that “with a cactus, the pricks are on the outside!”

Image: Pique Newsmagazine


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