The following is an interview conducted
in June 1988 with Hon. W.B. Strachan, Government House Leader; Mark Rose,
Opposition House Leader; Angus Ree, Government Whip; Colin Gabelmann,
Opposition Whip and; Austin Pelton, Deputy Speaker. The interview was conducted
by Craig James, Clerk of Committees and Second Clerk Assistant in the British
Columbia Legislative Assembly. Since this interview, Mr. Ree has become the
Solicitor General for British Columbia and the Hon. W. B. Strachan has
relinquished responsibility as Government House Leader to the Hon. Claude
Let me start by asking each of
you how you were selected to perform your present function? The purpose of this
interview is to illustrate the role each plays in orchestrating the business of
the Legislative Assembly.
Mark Rose: Our caucus, chooses the person who will
serve as its House Leader each year.
Mr. Gabelmann: I was also elected in a vote by my
colleagues in caucus.
Angus Ree: The Premier asked me to take the job as
Chief Government Whip.
W.B. Strachan: The Government House Leader is a member of
Cabinet chosen by the Premier.
Austin Pelton: I am an officer of the House and was
elected by my peers on the recommendation of the Premier but seconded by the
How would each of you describe
W.B. Strachan: The job of the Government House Leader, at
least in my estimation, is to state the business of government and then set out
some expectation as to when that business will be concluded. The agenda and how
it is going to be done, is entirely up to the Whips and I think it should be
left that way. I have no interest in going around and telling this member or
that member they should speak or not speak. I think that is clearly left up to
the Whips. I think our experience, in my eighteen months as House Leader, has
been that if we have the Whips organizing their respective speakers the
business gets done lot better. If I were to intervene in any sort of
agenda-setting, I would probably complicate the business of getting the
government business done so I think it is best that I stay out of it.
Mark Rose: I think a House Leader's job is basically
three-fold: first of all, the duties are partly ceremonial; another is the
procedural part of it -- the wrangles with my counterpart on the government
side over procedure, which do not really occupy much time (or have not anyway)
because we usually agree, and I suppose the third thing is to attempt to have
an orderly debate in the House. I share that job with the Whip, and make
certain that people's rights are respected within the caucus in terms of their
opportunity to be visible and to participate.
Angus Ree: The Chief Government Whip is, first and
foremost, the direct representative of the Premier with respect to the caucus.
That involves making sure members of caucus are conversant with legislation
before the House and that they are supportive of the legislation. If they are
not supportive I must ascertain why, and try, not so much to bring them on side
but provide them with full knowledge and background of the matter at the time.
I think that is one function. The second function is certainly to see that you
have a majority available for division at all times.
There should be a quorum in the
Chamber during proceedings out of respect for the Chamber. Then you come down
to other duties, some of which the House Leader for the Opposition has
indicated. Orderly debates, lists of speakers on various issues and when your
members want to speak, and I try to encourage them to participate so that the
House can function responsibly and in an orderly fashion and I guess the next
item is in respect to the order of the House and the order of business of the
day, in conjunction with the House Leader and negotiating with the Opposition
and the Whip as to what business is going to be transacted during the course of
the proceedings and I think that is it, basically. There is a lot of
hand-holding but basically as Government Whip you are directly responsible for
the caucus to the Premier.
Mr. Gabelmann: I think, in terms of the Opposition Whip,
there are two distinct areas of responsibility. One is relating to caucus and
that is to be sure that your caucus members are present if they should be; to
be sure that they know what the order of business is so they can participate if
they are supposed to participate or choose to; to be sure there is reasonable
attendance in the House at all times -- that is probably one of the more
difficult and frustrating parts of the job because people in this job are so
busy. So it is always a struggle between the Whip and the ordinary members of
The other side of the job has more
to do with the House and the House business. This is an area that I think is
interesting in trms of British Columbia. We have never had since I have been
around this place, a clear distinction between the role of House Leader and
that of Whip. There is a fuzzy, grey area that is increasingly grey, in my
view, as to who, in fact, discusses the questions of House business, what we
are going to do next, how long we are going to spend on legislation and all the
details of the running of the place on a day-to-day business. In some
jurisdictions the House Leaders do more of that, depending on the personalities
of the people involved. I think it ebbs and flows here too. At the present
time, the Government Whip and myself end up doing a lot of the day-to-day
determination of what business will be conducted and that works well. I think
it is less important what the titles are than how people work together and how
the place works. I think everyone would agree we had a pretty orderly session
this year, given the way it is worked but it may not follow the technical rules
or the historical understandings of the responsibilities of House Leaders or of
Mark Rose: Before you leave that, I would like to
elaborate on your comment that it varies with different people --
personalities, rather than the titles prevail. Now Bruce Strachan is a
"hands off" House Leader, he just told us that, so that makes my role
different as well. I do not have the same involvement in the things that the
Whips are doing because Bruce does not care. So his attitudes and style affect
the way I operate too.
W.B. Strachan: Mark and I also, I think, have rules or
have obligations to be "Ministers of Defence". That does not happen
much in this current atmosphere and with these current administrations -- both
the administration of the Opposition and the administration of Government. But
"Ministers of Defence", of course, act reciprocally and I think that
on a equal basis, and only if someone else is being offensive, do we become
defensive. But there have not been a lot of offensive people around, at least
in the last eighteen months, so our "Minister of Defence" rules are
somewhat diminished, and I think this is healthy. This Legislative Assembly was
not an embarrassment as in times past and I think we are all aware of it.
Austin Pelton: My title implies almost fully what I have
to do, that is to fulfill the responsibilities of the Speaker in his absence.
Other than that my main function is chairing the Committee of Supply.
What problems do you each of you
encounter in executing your role?
Austin Pelton: Other than the problem of maintaining
order in the Legislature which has not been really difficult over the past year
or so, the only other problem associated with the job is that the demands on
your time are such that it is hard to plan your own day with respect to people
who might want to see you from your constituency -- the problems are not all
that severe. I thoroughly enjoy it.
Mark Rose: It is very difficult really to nail things
down. Change is the only constant and there are always surprises, -- it is like
a floating crap game. Sometimes you can plan a certain debate to be finishedby
a certain time but it takes on dynamics of its own and you cannot steer -- you
are just riding. You try, as much as you can, without limiting the rights of
the private member, to monitor the debate.
For instance, if I have made an
agreement with the House Leader of the Government that a piece of business
should end at a certain time and yet my own people go on and on and on, then my
credibility is lost. If Bruce tells me one day that there are three more bills
coming in and that is it for the year, then he gets pressured and showered with
bills unexpectedly, then his credibility is shot. People who favour all sorts
of free votes and a kind of a maverick approach, rather than supporting the
team system can cause a lot of severe chest pains to House Leaders.
Angus Ree: People say, "Well, what is it like
being a Whip?", and I counter by saying it is like being a school teacher
to forty-four independent adults, They do not all march to your tune because
they are politicians. I guess the problem to counter is, well, as Mark indicated,
trying to maintain your credibility in your negotiations with the Opposition.
As far as your own members are concerned they are independent, they have great
demands on their time and sometimes, if the debate is not that interesting in
the House, they do not know why they should be there. You must coerce, coax,
beat them over the head or whatever may be necessary to impress upon them that
matters must proceed.
Mr. Gabelmann: Well, my perspective on this question is
based on having been Government Whip for a year and a half in the early 1970s,
having been Opposition Whip during a dreadful parliament when we had very
little trust or decent communication between the parties, and being Opposition
Whip again now in what is an entirely different situation. My biggest problem
is trying to decide the fair balance between being a Sergeant-Major and a
It is very difficult to know quite
how to deal with people and I am sure, Angus, that it is mostly your own caucus
where you have problems because people have their own lives, they have their
own egos and they have their own drummers and sometimes getting them to march
to the common drum is difficult. So, that is the real task and that is the real
problem. It was that frustration that made me decide not run again for the
position of Opposition Whip some years ago. It is my second time round in this
job. I must say I find it a lot easier now with both the atmosphere in the
House and with the caucus of which I am a member.
Another problem that might be
common to people in these kinds of positions across our parliamentary system is
-- I find it absolutely essential never to lie to the Government Whip and if I
did, or if I do, then I think our ability to do our jobs would be finished and
I would have to leave and let somebody else do the job. You can imagine there
are some things you cannot pass on, and trying to find a way to not lie, or not
mislead or not lead down the wrong path, and at the same tim keep the kind of
quiet counsel that you need in terms of caucus strategy can be trying and can
be difficult. But it is so much of a challenge that it actually makes the job
The dynamics of this place resemble
a river in flood, and you can do one of three things. You can try and stop it, in
which case you will drown. Two, you can swim against it, in which case you get
very, very tired, very, very quickly or in the third case you can swim with it
and go with the flow.
W. B. Strachan: Once you understand some basic principles of
human dynamics, the fact that we are 69 people in that place, diverse,
explosive personalities (we would not be politicians if we were not that way in
the first place), once we understand that, once we understand that we have all
got egos as big as the building and we have got a job to do on behalf of
thousands of people who have elected us and we want to be seen as doing it as
well as possible, we have got a responsibility to our political parties who
elected us. We have a lot to do. We have to recognize that once we have that
sorted out, then the problems go away, or are diminished as much as you can
What authority do you have and
where does it come from.
Mark Rose: I think that my authority (whatever I
have, and whatever anybody has) rests on the confidence of the House, your
caucus and the government caucus. You could ask that of the Speaker. His
authority rests on the fact that he is elected but if he does not enjoy the
confidence of the House, he does not last long as Speaker. He is going to have
lots of trouble. There is a pecking order around here and it is not so long
before people begin to grade you as you would your peers in a school class. You
can always tell a kid who is smarter than you are and one that is not, and
whether one can be trusted -- whether one has any credibility. As a House
Leader you can take cheap shots, but if you do I do not think you will be
accepted as a negotiator. If you are untrustworthy or if you are incompetent,
then it soon begins to show.
Incidently, I would like to pick up
on that last point Bruce mentioned: the fact of the matter is that you really
cannot be a martinet in any of these jobs. It is a people-skilled job, and so
my skill is the basis of the authority I have. For instance, if I tell Bruce,
" yes, we are going to be out of here at such and such a time, or we will
be through this debate at such and such a time," and it goes on and on
because I cannot control my own caucus, that means they have no respect for me.
Pretty soon I cannot be relied upon, even though I may be honest personally.
The interpersonal dynamics is made up of a great mix of stuff.
One of my main aims is to make this
House a more civil place. I was absolutely appalled when I first came here.
Austin Pelton: Well I think Mark said something that is
certainly very true in my job -- that a lot of the authority you have evolves
from the fact that you were put there by people from both sides of the House
and the confidence that they expressed in your ability to do the job, before youeven
took it on. I think that is a kind of an authority and, of course, other than
that, all the authority for doing my job is contained in the Standing Orders
and they are very explicit and you know exactly where you stand. It is very,
very clear what you can do and what you cannot do. And, since you expect
everybody else to abide by those Standing Orders then you do the same yourself.
Angus Ree: As far as the Chief Government Whip is
concerned, if one talks about authority, you cannot be a martinet, but the
authority of my position is whatever the Premier will give to me. However it
still involves getting the respect of the people you are dealing with as to
whether you are successful or not.
Mr. Gabelmann: As Opposition Whip, I do not perceive that
I have any authority in the real sense of that word. I have clout and some
influence and the amount of that depends upon the confidence people have in the
job I am doing. It really boils down to that.
W.B. Strachan: Maybe it is a semantic concern but in my case
it is a matter of "confidence " rather than "authority". I
have the confidence of the Cabinet, which is a prerequisite to my position and
because of that I have the confidence of the Social Credit backbench and also
of the Opposition. If I lost, first of all, that confidence from Cabinet, then
the rest of my credibility would be completely destroyed.
How much time do you spend on
Austin Pelton: Well, when the House is in session, of
course, it takes up most of my time but when its not the Deputy Speaker is in a
kind of limbo although you may have the responsibility of representing the
Speaker at certain functions.
Mark Rose: I also have a role as opposition critic
but because I thought the job of House Leader would take a lot of time I deliberately
asked to be critic for an area that involves less than 1% of the budget.
I go to daily meetings like
Question Period and I am expected to be in the House a great deal. I am
expected to show up at all caucus meetings and so it takes quite a bit of time.
I would say it takes the majority of my time but if in addition I had to run a
ministry like Bruce does I would want a pretty able deputy to look after things
in my absence.
Angus Ree: I find it takes a great deal of my time.
It may depend upon my nature that I get intense in this and sometimes I have
been accused of being a perfectionist, but I probably spend an excessive time
in the job as Whip. As Whip, you are generally the first to arrive and the last
to leave. You attend many functions in which caucus is involved, certainly all
caucus meetings. You go to outside caucus functions when we have people hosting
us who are lobby groups gathering information and the Whip is expected to be
there. I think, in some ways, it is a detriment to serving your constituents to
have the job of Whip. But then again, I think it depends on the individual.
Mr. Gabelmann: I have never counted the number of hours
but my guess would be that on a typical day, I would spend a couple of hours on
workrelated to my duties as whip. I think it could easily be eight or ten hours
a day, too, it just depends upon how you handle it. It depends upon how well
organized you are. I think that is crucial. If you want to get it done in a
minimum time, you really do need to be well organized. But, I think it is not
the total number of minutes or hours that count as much as that it is always
there. You need, on occasion, to go into your office to work undisturbed for a
couple of hours and you cannot because the phone is ringing or somebody needs
something or the business is suddenly changing or one thing or another. As
well, when you are meeting with constituents, you do not have the privacy that
sometimes you want because you have to be interrupted while you are doing the
job. It is that kind of constant interruption that I find more difficult to
handle than the absolute number of hours involved.
W.B. Strachan: I agree. You are unnerved all the time
because you do not know when something is going to go awry, so even if you
think you have a completely easy day there is always the potential for
disaster. I think we all have potential for disaster, but it has diminished
considerably in the last eighteen months, with the difference in the
administrations. Some days I spend no more than two minutes a day, in terms of
being House Leader. If we are in estimates when I know they are going to be
cordial, I introduce the vote at ten o'clock in the morning, adjourn the House
at noon, introduce the vote at two o'clock and adjourn the House at six and that
is the extent of my duty as a House Leader. Sometimes not even that if there is
a Minister who can handle those duties for us. So, some days it can be quite
easy; others can be quite difficult, particularly sitting with a majority of
new cabinet ministers who are not familiar with the parliamentary process.
There is a lot of baby-sitting that has to be done although they are gaining
more experience in that regard. I also have the responsibility of being the
Chairman of the cabinet committee on Legislation so at certain times of the
year it involves my attendance at those meetings and that involves a couple of
hours a week.
Of course I have staff to assist.
The Legislative Counsel and one person from the Premier's Office work for me in
my role as Chairman of the Legislation Committee and also assist in organizing
the introduction of bills and getting the bill to me before introduction by the
Minister. It would be very hard to count the time. I guess if I was going to
average it, I would say about two hours a day when the House is sitting, but a
bit less when we are not.
What support is available to
Mark Rose: I have a separate office. We have better
offices than we have ever had. There has been a vast difference around here
since the new government was elected, a new Speaker and new House Leaders on
both sides. But I would like to have some sort of an Executive Assistant
attached to the Whip's office and the HouseLeader's office and that would be a
big, big help to us -- an equivalent to a researcher for those jobs when
certain things are coming up, such as Standing Order 35 motions, privilege
motions and that sort of thing.
Austin Pelton: Well, I have more
than adequate accommodation and I share staff with the Government Whip and his
deputy, which works out really well. No problems at all.
How do you see your role
evolving and what would you like to see changed?
Mark Rose: Well, we can do a lot more here in terms
of changing structures and dealing with estimates. We continuously need to look
at the evolution of the rules. I see the committee system changing and I see
procedural reform as an on-going thing. We can all see errors in the last
reform and places where we could probably make things more meaningful for the
private member. One of the things that I am most proud about is Friday Morning
Statements - an opportunity to allow the private members to raise matters that
concern them. It has worked really well. We put several practice
recommendations in the last reform package. You know, little things like being
able to describe briefly the bill introduced. A few little things have made the
place a bit more civil. I would like to see backbenchers on both sides have
more opportunity to perform, particularly on the government side, because if
cabinet wants to get a bill through or get an estimate through, they do not
really want their side to speak at all and so there really has to be greater
opportunities for their backbenchers to raise matters of concern to them.
Angus Ree: Are you suggesting that as House Leader
you have a better opportunity of having influence for these progressive changes
than you would if you were just an ordinary MLA?
Mark Rose: Yes, because I am also on the Board of
Internal Economy and I am dealing with people who can effect these changes. You
know, I am not wailing away by myself as another backbencher. I am talking to
the House Leader of the government all the time. I am with the Speaker and
other people, formally and informally, at various bi-partisan social occasions.
Austin Pelton: One of the things that I enjoy about
Parliament and about the Speaker's job, as well as the Deputy Speaker's job, is
that it is steeped in tradition and history. When you talk of things evolving,
they do, but it is a very slow process, happening over many hundreds of years.
Certainly, as Mark suggests, we can amend the rules from time to time and
change them to the betterment of the House and to all the people that serve
there. But, as I say, I really enjoy the traditional things that happen in the House
and it would upset me to see changes that took away from those things it stands
for and that happens in there.
Angus Ree: I do not know how I would see the role of
the Whip evolving. It might be easier if we had some big stick such as the
opportunity of fining members to make them jump but I do not think that is
necessary. It would ruin the position and ruin te office itself and you would
lose more than you would ever gain.
Mr. Gabelmann: Nor do I think there needs to be any
attention given as to how to change the job of Opposition Whip. The only
significant change I think could be made would be on the Government Whip's side
and that would be to look at the question of whether or not, as in Great
Britain, the Whip should be a member of cabinet. I could certainly see some
good arguments there. It is an approach that seems to me to make sense. Going
back to my days as Government Whip a long time ago, it would have been easier
to have done the job if I would have known what was on the agenda.
Angus Ree: Well, I think I would certainly have to
agree with you and I have not touched on that but if you were closer to the
inner sanctum you would know better what was going on and I think you could
better negotiate. Under the present system, I rarely know until a bill is being
caucused what is coming down. Even the House Leader in his position as a
cabinet minister has not got the right to show me.
No other problems?
Mark Rose: Well, I thought Colin might talk about his
frustrations of not only the legal absentees, but the illegal absentees.
Angus Ree: Have you got that problem also?
Mr. Gabelmann: Yes, we sure do. But I think the
difference between an Opposition Whip and the Government Whip, in terms of the problem
of the illegal absentees, is that it does not really matter to us, other than
in a political sense, if we have 16 or 6 -- we do not win or lose the
government and for Angus, and for Government Whips anywhere, to have any degree
of illegal absentees is a major problem as it could lead, potentially, to the
fall of a government. I guess because my colleagues know that it does not
really matter whether we have 6 or 16, although I think it does matter, there
is not a great degree of concern about that. A lot of people will feel quite
easy about just going off for a couple of hours and doing something without
remembering to tell me and there is a fair amount of that and it is quite
I remember one Friday when I had
allowed people to be away, in each case for a very good reason, (it is not as
though they were away on holiday, they were away on constituency matters or
they were work-related) and by 11:30 on that Friday morning I discovered that
there were 5 members of our caucus within the precincts -- that there were
another six away who had decided that they did not need to tell me about it.
That gets frustrating at times, but if you let it get to you, you might as well
quit the job. You just have to find a way. In the final analysis, you cannot
really do anything about it because everybody is adult, they are elected on
their own, they are responsible to their constituents and to themselves and the
degree to which they are responsible to each other is different in each