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Whips and Party Cohesion
Martin Westmacott

At the time this article was written Martin Westmacott was Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario. This article was based in part on interviews with present and former whips and staff in the offices of the Chief Government Whip, the Chief Opposition Whip and the NDP Whip's office.

James E. Walker, Chief Government Whip from 1963 to 1966. commented: "Once you get beyond the taxicab radius of Ottawa, nobody seems to have heard of a Whip. For that matter. nobody in Ottawa, three blocks from the Hill, has ever heard of the Whip either!"1 Whips work quietly behind the scenes and their activities are not widely reported by the media, nor understood by the general public. Yet, their very presence in the House of Commons facilitates communication within their respective caucuses, thereby promoting the cohesiveness of their parliamentary parties. To a more limited extent, the whips actively encourage a degree of understanding and co-operation between the government and the opposition parties which is essential if the House of Commons is to conduct the nation's business in an effective and efficient fashion.

While there is an extensive body of British literature detailing the origins and evolution of the office of whip, the nature of the whip's responsibilities, and his interactions with his parliamentary colleagues, there has been no comprehensive study of the office of the whip either at the federal or provincial level in Canada.

Definition and Origin of the Term

Anthony King has noted that the term "whip", in modern day politics, has come to be associated with a person, an activity. and a method of communication within a parliamentary caucus.2 The term is most often associated with the British parliamentary system and refers to: "A member of the House of Commons who is specifically responsible for liaison between the party's leaders and ordinary MP's for the purposes of information, organization of debates and discipline."3 However, it can also refer to an activity the act of whipping that pertains to the activities of the party whips within their respective caucuses to ensure that backbench MP's support the party leadership and are present in the House of Commons for all important debates and votes. Finally, the term "whip" can refer to a method of written communication between the whip and his backbench colleagues advising them of the business of the House, and when their attendance is required for votes.

The origin of the term is derived from the British hunting phrase "whipper-in" which referred to a huntsman's assistant who keeps the hounds from straying by driving them back into the pack with a whip. The first parliamentary occasion when reference was made to the presence of the parliamentary whip was in 1769, when Edmund Burke observed that the government had "whipped-in" its supporters for a debate in the House of Commons on a petition from Middlesex freeholders regarding Parliament's decision to seat a particular member. Fifty years later, the present system of voting in the British House of Commons was adopted whereby members divide into "aye" and "nay" lobbies. and are counted by tellers appointed by the Speaker. Whips were appointed to organize support and canvass opinion among the members, and on occasions when formal votes were recorded the whips served as tellers. However, it was not until 1853 that members were first formally requested to attend a vote by a party whip. The first occasion when whips issued formal written appeals to attend a vote was in 1879.

The position of party whip within the British House of Commons emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and was directly linked to the emergence of intra-parliamentary political factions and to the enactment of the reform acts of 1832 and 1867 which extended the franchise to a significantly larger segment of the British population. To attract the support of the newly enfranchised electorate, extra-parliamentary organizations emerged to assist the parliamentary leaders in the recruitment of candidates and in the conduct of election campaigns. Political parties developed policy platforms and members were elected to Parliament as supporters of a political party.

Party government became an important component of the British political culture and led to the constitutional convention that, if a government failed to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons, it could not remain in office. As a consequence, each political party designated a member of caucus as party whip to ensure support for the leadership of the party. By the latter part of the 19th century, the position of party whip was an established parliamentary office, and the incumbent came to be recognized as a symbol of authority within each caucus.4

The Role of the Whip in Canada

While the Canadian parliamentary system is based on the British model, many of our parliamentary offices and practices have evolved in a distinctively Canadian fashion. The position of party whip has existed since Confederation, however, unlike that of Britain it has not been the Canadian practice to appoint the Chief Government Whip to the cabinet as a junior minister. There was no official or legal recognition of the office nor remuneration for the duties associated with the position until 1963,5 and appointment to the position has not become a "stepping stone" to the cabinet.

Each party designates a member of its caucus as Chief Whip, and, within the Liberal and Conservative caucuses, the Chief Whip is assisted by one or two deputy whips. The British practice of appointing deputy whips to monitor opinion among small, regional groups of MP's has not been implemented. While the Chief Government Whip and his opposition counterpart have received a stipend since 1963, it was not until 1972 that deputy whips and the whips of smaller opposition parties received compensation. Only rarely have provincial whips been appointed.

The authority of the whip is derived from his appointment by his party leader, or, in the case of the New Democratic Party, his election by caucus. Of equal importance, however, is the moral authority of the whip derived from the prestige associated with the position. In contrast with Great Britain, the party whip has remained a relatively obscure member of caucus who possesses neither the level of moral authority nor the influence of his British counterpart.

Extant British and Canadian literature suggests several similarities in the roles performed by the party whip. Philip Norton has argued that the three major responsibilities of the office are ". . . communication, management and persuasion...".6 While it is possible to isolate each role, past and present officeholders in Canada have confirmed Norton's observation that all activities are ultimately directed towards enhancing cohesion and containing dissent within the caucus. There are, however, some variations in the way in which whips in Canada and Great Britain discharge their responsibilities and relate to their parliamentary colleagues.


Administrative or Management Role

In Canada, party whips are engaged in a wide variety of administrative or management functions directly related to planning and organizing the activities of the parliamentary caucus. Among the activities are:

  • the allocation of members' offices
  • the selection of members to serve on parliamentary committees
  • monitoring attendance of members in the House of Commons, and the preparation of a duty roster for members to ensure a parliamentary quorum
  • organization of speakers in the House of Commons for parliamentary debates
  • arranging of "parliamentary pairs"
  • communication of information to members regarding votes and attendance in the House of Commons
  • approving requests for members to travel from Ottawa when the House of Commons is in session
  • recommending members to serve on parliamentary delegations.

At first glance, many of the whip's activities appear to be rather trivial or mundane. However, the issues that must be negotiated are extremely delicate and can influence in more than a marginal way morale within the caucus. Not all members possess the interpersonal skills required to successfully discharge these responsibilities. A party leader must give careful consideration to this in his selection of a whip.

Communication Role

In Great Britain, the whips are directly involved in the parliamentary legislative process. Inter-party agreements concerning the length of debates and the scheduling of votes are negotiated by the party whips through "usual channels" – an impartial public servant who is Private Secretary to the Chief Government Whip, and who retains his position when there is a change in government.

In contrast with the Canadian practice, British House leaders are not directly involved in inter-party negotiations, and there is no British equivalent of House leaders' meetings where the details of the parliamentary timetable are negotiated. As a consequence, British whips, not their House leaders, transmit important information and advice directly to the party leader regarding parliamentary strategy and tactics.

In Canada, whips have never played as prominent a role in inter-party negotiations. Prior to 1945, while the whips were the primary communication links between parties, the party leaders discussed organization of the business of the House directly.7 It was the whip's responsibility to communicate their leaders' directions to the caucus and to report directly back to the leader on the mood of the House and on currents of opinion within the caucus. Since 1945, however, House leaders have become the principal mode of inter-party communication with the whips' role confined to transmitting the House leader's directions to caucus members. These developments have enhanced the status of the House leaders at the expense of that of the party whip.

The existence of highly cohesive political parties provides the foundation for party government. In Canada, party cohesion is even stronger than in Great Britain, and intra-party dissent, expressed in the form of cross-party voting, is a rare occurrence. The rigidity of party cohesion influences the whip's relations with the caucus. In Great Britain, the whip constantly monitors opinion within his caucus, and strives to build support for the party position. In contrast, the whip in Canada structures his relations with the caucus on the assumption that all members will support the party position, and that his intervention to contain dissent will rarely be necessary. Rather than canvassing members, either privately or in small groups, the Canadian whip utilizes the weekly caucus meeting to monitor currents of opinion within the caucus. As a consequence, the role of the whip in Canada has been compared to that of a policeman whose major responsibility is to ensure that members are present in the House to support the leadership of the party.

Disciplinary/Persuasion Role

There are several myths surrounding the office of whip in both Canada and Great Britain. Professors Philip Norton and Peter Richards have suggested that in Great Britain the "tyranny" of the whips is misleading and that whips accomplish more by persuasion and quiet diplomacy than by threats.8 In Canada, Alan Kornberg has argued that party cohesion is maintained not by the threat of sanctions and penalties but rather by the self discipline of individual members, and by peer pressure from colleagues.9 Within each parliamentary caucus, however, there are significant differences of opinion on a variety of issues, that may never surface in a public forum. The role of whip is to contain dissent and to promote cohesion, to serve as a "sounding board" for the concerns of backbenchers and to determine whether accommodation can be reached when the party position and that of an individual member come into conflict.

Before a member will publicly disassociate himself from his party's position on an issue, there is an elaborate mechanism for intra-party consultation. Within the government party caucus, a backbencher may approach the party whip, or alternatively the party whip may approach the member in an attempt to determine the nature of the member's opposition to government policy. A meeting with the minister's parliamentary secretary, or with the minister himself, can be arranged, and, on rare occasions, the member will meet with the Prime Minister. Opposition whips employ similar tactics, encouraging members to consult with senior members of the caucus to discuss policy differences. Within the NDP more emphasis is placed on utilizing the caucus meeting as a means of resolving policy disputes. If accommodation cannot be reached and the member does vote against the party position, his actions will be more willingly tolerated if he has shown a willingness to consult and has advised the whip in advance as to his intentions.

There appears to be a well-established convention within all three parties that permits members to disassociate themselves from the party position if the decision of caucus conflicts with a member's moral or religious beliefs or if the party position places the member in direct conflict with the interests of his constituents.10 After meeting with the member, the whip may advise the member to consider absenting himself from the vote rather than voting against his party.

The Chief Government Whip has arguments to persuade government members to support the party position, which are not available to his counterparts in the opposition. He can invoke the authority of the Prime Minister, and can advise members that the defeat of the government could precipitate an election. Furthermore, backbenchers may be advised that persistent opposition to government policy could impede their advancement within the party. This may prove to be an idle threat, however, because there have been instances where so-called "party rebels" have been brought into the cabinet or appointed as parliamentary secretaries in order to silence them. Opposition whips cannot employ many of these arguments and must ultimately appeal to a member's sense of party loyalty in an attempt to contain intra-party dissent.

A member who is inattentive to his parliamentary duties, fails to attend caucus meetings on a regular basis, or is absent from the House without the whip's permission, will be brought to the attention of the whip by his staff. The whip may decide to approach the member for an "informal" or "off the record" discussion, either in the division lobby or in the Parliamentary Restaurant. If the member's behaviour persists, he may be invited to meet with the party leader. In exceptional circumstances, the whip, with the approval of the party leader, could write to the President of the member's constituency association advising him of the member's behaviour.

If a member continues to neglect his parliamentary duties, there are a very limited number of sanctions a whip can threaten to employ. This has led to the observation that whips have a loud bark but no teeth". In fact, it was the view of both government and opposition whips that the only disciplinary measures which could be imposed on a regular basis were to deny a member access to the perks of parliamentary life – office accommodation and staff, .travel as a member of parliamentary delegations, or membership on a particular parliamentary committee. Within the NDP caucus, the most frequently employed sanctions are to deny a member the opportunity to ask a question during Question Period, and to exclude a member from the list of speakers which is submitted to the Speaker by the party whip.

It has been suggested that a more appropriate way to characterize a whip's relations with his parliamentary colleagues is that of a "shepherd" rather than a "sheepdog". The cohesive and disciplinary powers of the party whips in Canada and in Great Britain are extremely limited. A whip cannot force the party position on his colleagues by threatening to impose sanctions and penalties. The whip must employ his considerable powers of persuasion to contain intra-party dissent and to encourage party cohesion.

Personal Qualities of Whips

The task of maintaining, over a prolonged period of time, the confidence and respect of both the party leadership and the backbench members is a most difficult one. Given that more is accomplished by persuasion, a whip must develop a "personality profile" of each member of his caucus, the knowledge of which he can use to assist him in predicting how individual members will react in a wide variety of situations. In many instances, the whip will be privy to highly sensitive, personal information regarding a member's activities. Thus, it is essential that the whip exercise considerable discretion in his relations with his parliamentary colleagues and members of the media.

While there have been no systematic studies in Canada of the personal qualities necessary to be an effective whip, studies of the office in Great Britain have identified several qualities deemed to be important.11 The "ideal" party whip would be an experienced member who has mastered not only the formal and legalistic rules of parliamentary procedure, but who has come to understand t e informal customs, conventions and practices of parliamentary life. A party leader would search for a colleague who is approachable, modest, and who encourages a sense of confidence among caucus members thereby promoting frank discussion. A whip should be viewed as a "party loyalist" but should not be openly identified with a particular faction within the party. In times of intra-party conflict, a whip should remain emotionally detached from the debate, and should assume the role of an impartial mediator.

An examination of the individuals who have served as Canadian party whips since 1945 reveals that, for the most part, they have been experienced members. Usually, their term as whip has been three to five years, however, there have been instances of much longer terms: W. G. Weir served as Chief Government Whip from 1945 to 1957; A. C. Casselman was Chief Opposition Whip from 1935 to 1955; and Stanley Knowles was CCF/NDP whip for twenty-five years. The Chief Government Whip may be rewarded with an appointment to the Senate, as a parliamentary secretary, or even Speaker of the House. Appointment to the cabinet has been extremely rare.

Why would a Member of Parliament assume such a demanding and difficult job as party whip? The academic literature on the office of party whip suggests that, while there are considerable personal costs to the officeholder, there are some immediate benefits as well.

It has become a tradition in Great Britain that neither the Chief Government Whip nor his opposition counterpart assume a partisan role in the deliberations of the House of Commons during their tenure as whip. The "vow of silence" and the corresponding loss of identity are frequently cited by party whips in Canada as one of the major personal costs associated with the position. Historically, opposition whips in Canada have been more actively involved in partisan debates in the House and have been encouraged to pursue their policy interests and their committee work.

The most frequently cited benefits of the position are more regular and frequent contact with the leadership of the party, access to inside information regarding party strategy, and the opportunity to influence the party leadership on matters of policy and parliamentary strategy. In contrast with British whips, increased status and influence within the caucus, promotional opportunities and the excitement associated with the position are less frequently cited by Canadian whips as benefits associated with the position.

The Whip's Office

During the past decade, the leadership of each party has placed greater demands on the whip's office for more precise information regarding the attentiveness of caucus members to their parliamentary duties. The Chief Government Whip in particular must be in a position each day to advise both the Prime Minister and the House leader as to the number of members present and accounted for within the government caucus, as well as the number of members who are paired with a parliamentary colleague. Parliamentary strategy and tactics could be influenced as a result of the information provided by the whip.

Twenty years ago, the Chief Government Whip's staff consisted of one secretary and one staff member. Since that time, the size of his office, as well as that of his counterpart in the Official Opposition, has expanded to six fulltime employees. At present, the NDP whip has two fulltime employees. Employees in all three offices are employed by the political party, and are paid from funds authorized by Parliament. Staff members hold office at the pleasure of the party whip and the party leader.

Even though the number of staff members in the office of the Chief Government Whip expanded, the responsibilities remained ill-defined and, as a consequence, there was considerable duplication of effort. Communication links between the whip's office and the caucus were tenuous and, in many instances. the staff was unable to provide accurate information about the activities of caucus members. Requests by the Prime Minister's office and the House leader for information on the presence of caucus members when the House was in session prompted a reorganization of the Chief Government Whip s office in November. 1982.

Each staff member has a specific "job description" and new internal procedures, such as a daily staff meeting, have been instituted. By increasing the internal efficiency of the office, the visibility of the Whip's office within the entire caucus has been enhanced, and the lines of communication with each member have been strengthened. For example, when the House is in session, the Whip's Chief Co-ordinator is present in the Government lobby, and is available to meet with members as they enter and leave the Chamber. His presence both increases the visibility of the Whip's Office among caucus members, and relieves the Whip from dealing with many of the more routine concerns and requests of members.

The activities of Whips' Offices can be divided into seven broad categories although some of them apply only to the Chief Government whip.

1. Members' travels: All requests to travel outside of Ottawa when the House of Commons is in session must be approved by the Whip's Office and, in the case of Cabinet Ministers, by officials in the Prime Minister's office.

2. Preparation of attendance book: Each morning the Chief Government Whip meets with his staff to review the parliamentary agenda, to discuss parliamentary strategy and tactics, and to assess currents of opinion within both the government and opposition caucuses. Requests from members to travel are reviewed, and by 11:00 a.m. each day, the Whip s Office prepares an "attendance sheet" detailing the status of all members of the government caucus for that day. After consulting with the House leader, the Whip may direct his staff to contact government members to advise them that they have been instructed to return to Ottawa for a parliamentary vote or debate. Should a staff member encounter resistance from a caucus member, the Whip may intervene directly.

3. Parliamentary committees: It is the responsibility of the Whip's Office to assign members of the caucus to serve on parliamentary committees. Members are canvassed by an official in the Whip's office to determine their preferences, and considerable effort is made to place a member on at least one or two committees which interest him. There will be occasions when it is impossible to satisfy the requests of all members, and the party whip may be asked to intervene to consider a member's request for a reallocation of his committee assignments. Once the committees are in operation, two staff members monitor the attendance of government members. Modifications to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons which came into effect in January 1983 have eliminated the practice of permitting an "immediate" substitution for an absent member. This has placed more pressure on staff to ensure that the positions allocated to government members are occupied at all times.

4. Preparation of a duty roster: One of the most important continuing responsibilities of the Chief Government Whip is to ensure that there are sufficient government members present in the House to maintain a quorum. For the past decade, it has been the practice of all parties to have the whip's office prepare a duty roster indicating when a member's presence in the House is required. Within the government caucus, members are divided into groups and assigned one day of "House duty" per week. To assist members in organizing their activities, the duty roster is prepared for a three month period, and members are assigned the same day each week.

5. Report to caucus: At each weekly caucus meeting, the party whip will present his report to caucus. The Whip's Report is an important event because it is the only occasion when the whip can speak to the entire caucus. The whip will use the opportunity to advise members of forthcoming votes and debates, and to encourage their attendance in the House. While it has not been a practice to discuss the attentiveness of particular members to their parliamentary duties, the whip can use the occasion to build morale within the caucus, and to encourage members to participate more effectively in committees or in debates within the House itself.

6. Monitoring activities of members: In recent years, the whips of all three parties have retained records which monitor the attentiveness of caucus members to their parliamentary duties. While all three party whips direct their staffs to document a member's voting record and his attendance in the House and in committees, the Liberals and NDP retain more complete records than do the Conservatives. In the case of the NDP, statistics documenting a caucus member's voting and attendance records are circulated by the party whip to all caucus members. For the past year, the Chief Government Whip has prepared a similar report which is circulated to the Prime Minister and the regional Ministers each week.

A simple compilation of statistics without any explanation can often be misleading, and may not give an accurate assessment of a member's performance. Yet, the three incumbent whips indicated that they have not encountered serious opposition from their parliamentary colleagues to the compilation of data by the whip's office. Many caucus members see the practice as being to their potential benefit, as it provides the party leadership with more complete and reliable information regarding each member's parliamentary performance than has been available in the past.

7. Communication with caucus members: In Great Britain, the party whip sends a weekly written communication advising all caucus members of parliamentary business and of impending votes for the forthcoming week. The "documentary" whip is utilized by the party whip to inform caucus members with regard to the importance of particular votes, and when a member's attendance for a vote is required. Each statement in the documentary whip is marked with one, two or three lines. As Robert Jackson has noted: "One line whips usually mean that there will not be a division and are common on Fridays; two line whips oblige Members to attend the House but allow them to pair, and three line whips call for compulsory attendance at important divisions. 12

In Canada, the regular practice of issuing such "documentary whips" to caucus members has not been followed by party whips. On particular occasions, such as the Throne Speech Debate, and the Budget Debate, the party whip may write to each member advising when a vote will be held, and urging a member's attendance. However, the method of communication that is employed most frequently is the regular weekly caucus meeting and telephone contact between the whip's office and a member's parliamentary staff. Within the government caucus, the whip's office will contact every member to inform him of an impending vote. A staff member will be in contact with every member at the beginning of each week to verify his itinerary for the week. and to inform the member's staff of important parliamentary votes.


The office of party whip is one of our least understood parliamentary offices although it has been in existence since Confederation. The mythology which surrounds the office suggests that the officeholder possesses considerable status and prestige within his caucus, and that he has considerable leverage over his parliamentary colleagues. A closer examination of the office reveals that, while the office has the 1rappings of power", party whips promote cohesion and contain dissent within their caucus through persuasion rather than through the imposition of sanctions and penalties.

Although party whips perform similar functions in Canada and Great Britain, the office in each country has evolved differently. Party whips in Canada do not enjoy the prestige and status of their British counterparts. This can be explained in part by the fact that it has not been Canadian practice to appoint the Chief Government Whip to a junior cabinet position, nor has appointment to the office come to be viewed as a 'Stepping stone" to the cabinet.

In Canada, whips are involved only indirectly in the parliamentary legislative process, and are a secondary line of communication between the parties in the House of Commons. The office has been greatly influenced over the past forty years by the emergence of the House leader as an important position within both government and opposition caucuses. Within each caucus, the House leader, rather than the party whip. has come to be viewed as the most influential advisor to the party leader on all matters relating to parliamentary strategy and tactics. Because of the rigidity of party cohesion, the role of the whip in Canada has been compared to that of a policeman whose primary responsibility is to ensure that members are present for a vote. As a consequence, whips in Canada are required to devote fewer resources to monitoring and canvassing opinion within the caucus to determine the nature and extent of support for the party position.

It has been suggested that party whips could assume a larger and more visible role than at present within the House of Commons. In particular, it has been proposed that the Chief Government Whip be appointed to Cabinet as a junior minister, thereby giving the office more prestige among his parliamentary colleagues, and giving the officeholder more direct access to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Party whips could also assume some of the responsibilities of the House leaders with regard to negotiating the parliamentary timetable. House leaders could continue to meet to set out the timetable for the parliamentary session, leaving the party whips the task of negotiating the specific details pertaining to the length of debate, and the scheduling of votes on a particular issue. Given the dominant position of the House leader within the caucus. it is unlikely these changes will in fact occur.

While political parties will continue to hold regular weekly caucus meetings, the informal lines of communication between the party leadership and the backbenchers must be strengthened, It has been suggested that the British practice of appointing "regional whips". who have responsibility for monitoring opinion within a small group of MP's, and subsequently reporting their findings to the Chief Party Whip and to the party leadership, could strengthen existing lines of communication within the caucus.

Without implementation of such changes, party whips will continue to remain virtually invisible. Their activities will not be widely reported by the media nor recognized by their colleagues. Yet their continued presence ensures that party government continues to function effectively within our parliamentary system.


1. James E. Walker, "The Functions of the Whip in Canada", Parliamentarian, Vol. 52, No. 4 (October 1971), p. 260.

2. Anthony S. King and S. Sloman, Westminster and Beyond, London, Macmillan, 1973, p. 105.

3. Jean-Luc Parodi, La Politique, Paris, 1971, p. 508. Quoted in Michel Juneau, "The Role of Whip in the Canadian House of Commons", Parliamentary Intern Program, June 1973 (English translation).

4. For a discussion of the evolution of party government and its impact on the party whip see: Philip Norton, Conservative Dissidents: Dissent Within the Parliamentary Conservative Party, 1970-1974, London, Temple Smith, 1978, pp. 24-26.

5. In 1963, an amendment to the Senate and House of Commons Act provided for the payment of a yearly additional allowance to the Chief Government Whip and the Chief Opposition Whip. This allowance has increased from $4,000 per year in 1963 to $9,300 per year in 1981. The assistant government whips, the assistant opposition whips, and the Chief Whip of third parties received $5,400 per year in 1981.

6. Philip Norton, op. cit., p. 163.

7. For a discussion of the evolution of the office of House Leader, see Paul Thomas, "The Role of House Leaders in the Canadian House of Commons", Canadian Journal of Political Science, 1982, Vol. 15, (No. 2), pp. 125-144.

8. See Norton, op. cit., pp. 164-173, and Peter Richards, Honourable Members: A Study of the British Backbencher, London, Faber and Faber, 1959, pp. 143-156.

9. A Kornberg, "Caucus Cohesion in Canadian Parliamentary Parties", American Political Science Review, Vol. 60, (March 1966), pp. 83-92.

10. A Kornberg, Canadian Legislative Behaviour: A Study of the 25th Parliament, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, p. 131.

11. Donald Searing and Chris Game, "Horses for Courses: the Recruitment of Whips in the British House of Commons", British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 22, (1964) pp. 361-385.

12. R.J. Jackson, Rebels and Whips, London, Macmillan, 1968, p. 39.

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