Unfortunately for Kathleen Wynne, the pollsters were right this time.
Wynne’s Liberals dropped so many seats in the election after 15 years in power, they lost official party status.
Of 124 seats, the Liberals won just seven — down from 55 at the time of the legislature’s dissolution, and one short of the eight required to be a ‘recognized party’ under the Standing Orders of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.
Asked before the vote what the impact of losing recognized party status would be on the Liberals, Ryerson University political science professor Myer Siemiatycki said bluntly, “It would be implosion, it would be turmoil within the party, recrimination within the party and a very difficult climb back up to credibility and legitimacy.”
When a party loses that status, he explained, they also lose certain parliamentary privileges that the legislature grants to elected officials. Here’s what that means for the Ontario Liberals.
Ontario’s electoral financing system provides each recognized political party with funding for the purposes of maintaining a staff capable of meeting the needs of the caucus, such as research and communications. Additional funding may be granted to increase salaries as well. Although the Liberals won nearly 20 per cent of the popular vote Thursday, “unofficial” parties are excluded from cash-for-votes funding.
Recognized parties have a guaranteed opportunity to address the government during question period in the legislature. This allows them “to hold the government to account,” says Siemiatycki, and “to portray themselves as the party that is best at keeping the current government on its toes.” In other words, to prove their value to constituents — and win support for the next election.
An unrecognized party has far less representation on committees of legislature, Siemiatycki says, where “a lot of the work of actually making policy happens.”
It’s doubtful the victorious Progressive Conservatives would give the Liberals any representation after losing status, he adds. “You’d be frozen out of that. So it is a precarious position for a political grouping to find themselves in, and it’d be a pretty humbling tumble of status for the Liberal party.”
University of Toronto professor Nelson Wiseman also points out the wider impact on Ontario politics — which will now, at least temporarily, imitate Western Canada by becoming essentially a two-party system. (Ontario has usually had three parties recognized in its legislature since 1908.)
Within the Liberal Party, Siemiatycki predicts, there won’t be 12 months of grief but an immediate blame-game — including pointing fingers at the leader, her predecessor and the campaign team.
At risk of flying off the political radar, the Liberals will have to bring “new faces, new blood, new ideas and work” he says, if they want to gain back their status.
The Liberals do have a few models for the uphill battle ahead. In 2003 the NDP won only seven seats, and then-premier Dalton McGuinty chose not to accommodate the party by reducing the minimum amount of seats needed for recognition — but within the year, Andrea Horwath put the NDP back on the map by winning the Hamilton East by-election (now called Hamilton Centre).
“It would certainly test the party,” Siemiatycki says. “This is something you can dig your way out of, but it’s not an experience that any political party wants.”
CORRECTION: history has been updated to reflect that while a party without recognized party status will lose parliamentary privileges, it will not lose parliamentary privilege.