Steven MacKinnon wants to create 'space' for Liberal MPs in new role as chief government whip

Steven MacKinnon, appointed government whip Thursday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, says he sees himself as a “facilitator” of the governing caucus and the smooth functioning of Parliament.

The job of keeping MPs united — and in line — is especially important in a minority Parliament

Steven MacKinnon speaks to a Radio-Canada reporter on Sept. 8, 2021, during the federal election campaign. (Hugo Belanger/Radio-Canada)

The new chief government whip let loose a laugh when asked about his aggressive-sounding job title.

"That has a historic significance," Steven MacKinnon said. "The role of whip has fundamentally nothing to do with … a device that causes harm."

The term "whip" comes from 18th-century hunting slang, according to the British Parliament. The "whipper-in" is a rider who keeps hounds from straying from the pack.

MacKinnon, appointed to the job Thursday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said he sees himself as a "facilitator" of both the governing caucus and Parliament.

"And I take both of those responsibilities incredibly seriously," he said.

He replaces Mark Holland, who was named government House leader in Trudeau's new cabinet.

MacKinnon was first elected in 2015 in the Quebec riding of Gatineau. He was no stranger to Parliament Hill, having served previously as an adviser to former prime minister Paul Martin.

"I am confident that Steven will fulfil his new duties with professionalism, integrity and care," Trudeau said in a media statement. "He has my trust and respect, and that of the whole caucus."

The chief government whip is a "very important role," MacKinnon said — particularly in a minority Parliament where the government can suddenly fall if it doesn't have enough members ready to vote on confidence measures, such as a federal budget.

It's his job to make sure that doesn't happen — that Liberals always have the votes they need in the Commons. MacKinnon is also tasked with deciding which Commons committees Liberal MPs will sit on and assigning office space.

MacKinnon said he's focused on ensuring the caucus can move forward the agenda the Liberals pitched during the election campaign.

He also said that, "to the extent that it's possible," he wants to "collaborate with the opposition to make sure that they too feel a part of this decision-making process."

MacKinnon will also be expected to discipline Liberals who stray too far from the party line, although that's something whips are reluctant to discuss publicly.

Steven MacKinnon rises during question period in the House of Commons on Dec. 4, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"I view the role as creating enough space for all of the members of Parliament in the Liberal caucus to make sure that their priorities, their passions, their ambitions are all able to find expression within our group," MacKinnon said.

His Liberal predecessors were put in the uncomfortable position of having to punish colleagues at points.

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez served as chief government whip from Jan. 2017 to Aug. 2018. During that period, New Brunswick Liberal MP Wayne Long was dropped from two committees for breaking ranks over proposed small business tax reforms.

Former Liberal Newfoundland and Labrador MP Scott Simms was removed as the fisheries committee chair for siding with Conservatives in a spat over the student summer jobs program. The move cost Simms personally, as committee chairs were paid $11,900 at the time, on top of their MP salaries.

Asked if he had ever had a difficult conversation with a whip, MacKinnon told CBC News he prides himself on being a team player. 

"I was joking as I met the staff of the whip's office this morning that I wasn't their most frequent customer. And now I was looking forward to seeing life on the other side of the counter," he said.

Role teaches 'how hard it is to be human,' says Holland

Holland said it's a "tremendously difficult job" and most of what a government whip does must stay behind closed doors. The job is about pulling people together, he said.

"Discipline should be an extraordinarily rare tool in your toolkit. These are incredibly accomplished, mature, responsible people. They don't require much discipline," he said. "What they do require is somebody to help coordinate them getting on to the same page."

The job teaches you "how hard it is to be a human being" and exposes the personal and professional stresses that MPs of all stripes deal with while trying to perform their duties, Holland said.

"You have to ask people to do really hard things, to make big sacrifices in their life," he said. "And the way you get them to do that is to understand them and understand their challenges and be compassionate to them."

Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Mark Holland speaks during a news conference in Ottawa after the federal cabinet was sworn in Oct. 26, 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Another aspect of MacKinnon's new job will involve making room for Liberal MPs to enjoy the free votes promised in the party's 2015 platform. The party promised free votes for the caucus except on confidence matters, those dealing with platform promises and those pertaining to "shared values and the protections guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

MacKinnon said that's a "good formula" for letting MPs vote their consciences on many issues.

"It's certainly been a step forward. I think one that, frankly, the government hasn't gotten enough credit for," he said. "It is not a rigid imposition of the party line at all times. There are spaces and occasions where members can express their views in Parliament, and do so freely."

One Liberal MP fond of doing just that is Toronto's Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has a track record of voting independently. He also recently expressed frustration to Radio-Canada about the government's decision to bring an end to the Canada Recovery Benefit.

Erskine-Smith tweeted his congratulations to MacKinnon Thursday for being named the new whip. 

"And my apologies in advance!" he added.

This article is part of CBC News' Minority Report newsletter, which will help you navigate the parliamentary waters of a minority government. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox.

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