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With a few exceptions, Members of Parliament belong to political parties. Canada's system of responsible government is based on the ability of the governing party (usually the party with the most seats in the House of Commons) to win votes in the legislature. Members of the House of Commons who belong to the same party, together with their colleagues from the Senate, are referred to collectively as that party's parliamentary caucus. Members of the House of Commons who do not belong to political parties sit as independents.

Each party's parliamentary caucus meets weekly in private when the House is in session to share their constituents' views, discuss policy, plan parliamentary strategy and help develop caucus positions on subjects being debated in the House. Party caucus research offices provide research material and information to Members. Because they are held in camera, caucus meetings allow Members to express their views and opinions freely on any matter that concerns them. Policy positions are elaborated, along with, in the case of the government party, the government's legislative proposals. Caucus provides a forum in which Members can debate their policy differences among themselves without compromising party unity. A party caucus usually does not vote on issues before it, but instead, discussion proceeds until a consensus is reached.

Attendance at caucus meetings is considered so important that the House does not sit on Wednesday mornings to allow these meetingsto take place. In addition, particularly for large party caucuses, there are separate meetings for party members from particular regions and major urban areas of the country. When Parliament is not meeting, party caucuses can be held in different parts of the country. Although each caucus operates differently, most limit attendance to parliamentarians.

The government retains the confidence of the House mainly through the support of its caucus. Because opposition parties are not responsible for introducing and defending the government's legislative proposals, their caucuses are focussed on devising effective parliamentary strategies and tactics to criticize the government. Opposition party leaders are aided in part in managing their caucuses through the designation of "critics" for each government portfolio. Members of the same caucus usually vote together in the House.


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