It should have been unthinkable: the Ontario Liberal Party, which has governed the province for 20 of the last 33 years, is looking at a near-total wipeout on election night. Kathleen Wynne has already conceded that she won’t be premier after the votes have been counted, and there’s no realistic chance that her party will form the official Opposition, either. Her shift in campaign strategy since acknowledging likely defeat on Saturday has been about trying to preserve as many Liberal seats as possible.
There’s a magic number the party is hoping to hit: eight. If eight or more Liberal MPPs win their seats, the party will retain its “recognized party” status. Why does this matter so much to the Liberals?
It all comes down to the standing orders of the legislature, which set out how debate is supposed to proceed through Queen’s Park and what the powers of the various parties are. It’s the standing orders, for example, that make it possible for the government to set the legislative agenda, and set out the powers and privileges of the official Opposition and other parties.
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But the standing orders don’t envision a large role for independent MPPs. Instead, most of the powers and privileges are reserved for “recognized parties,” and the threshold for being such a party is currently eight MPPs.
All provinces, and the federal Parliament, have their own standing orders. Ontario’s rules are about the strictest of all the provinces in Canada: only Quebec has a higher threshold, at 12 seats. (The federal threshold in the House of Commons is 12, but that's in a body with 338 MPs.)
What does having “recognized party” status mean? Very nearly everything, in terms of the business of Queen’s Park. Recognized parties are entitled to speaking time during debates and have guaranteed opportunities to ask questions during question period. And recognized parties are given public money to establish caucus offices (separate from those of individual MPPs), which can help parties with research and organization.
Recognized-party status is also spelled out in the Legislative Assembly Act, where it matters for a concrete reason: it determines what salary bonuses MPPs get for performing certain roles, such as house leader, caucus chair, or party whip.
While the standing orders do nominally make room for the role of independent MPPs, it’s clearly intended that most of Queen’s Park’s business will be conducted by and through the recognized parties.
But MPPs write the standing orders, and they can rewrite them if necessary. The threshold for party status used to be 12 MPPs in Ontario, but under Mike Harris, the Tories lowered it to eight after the 1999 election, when the number of MPPs at Queen’s Park shrank from 130 to 103. As the NDP had been reduced to nine MPPs, the move saved the party from losing its official status.
In 2003, however, things were different. The NDP won only seven seats, and the victorious Liberals were not in a generous mood. They refused to formally lower the threshold for official party status, which forced the New Democrats to lay off staff; leader Howard Hampton was evicted from his office. The party was not recognized as such during question period: the speaker of the house recognized members only by their names or ridings. (Marilyn Churley tried to force the issue by filing to change her surname officially to “Churley-NDP.”) The Liberals also put their own MPPs between the NDP and Tory members, shunting the NDP to one corner of the house — although tradition holds that opposition parties be seated together to recognize their common role in holding the government accountable.
The Liberals and the NDP did eventually reach an accommodation that saw the latter receive some question period slots and a small caucus budget. But the matter formally ended only when a byelection was held in Hamilton–East to replace Liberal MPP Dominic Agostino, who had died suddenly early in 2004. The NDP win brought the party back over the threshold, changing the seating plan of the legislature and introducing a new player in provincial politics: a relatively unknown city councillor named Andrea Horwath.
If the Liberals fail to pass the recognized-party threshold on election night, they could throw themselves on the mercy of the other parties and ask for the threshold to be reduced. Ontario is, after all, an outlier among the provinces; it’s reasonable to argue that democratic principles should give the Liberals a voice in the house.
On the other hand, many New Democrats remember the 2003 fight with the Liberals over the exact same issue, and they may not be ready to make nice — especially considering the barrage of attacks from the Liberals they’ve had to withstand in this campaign.
Which brings more mercenary self-interest to the table. If the Liberals get their wish and hold the balance of power in a minority legislature, asking for recognized-party status would be a no-brainer. It would be a no-brainer for either of the larger parties to say yes, if doing so meant they could stay in power.
A Tory majority government might also be willing to lower the threshold, for the cynical reason that if the Liberals simply cease to exist, Ontario’s progressive vote would likely coalesce around the NDP — and that would endanger the Tories’ re-election chances. So they might want to keep the Liberals on life support until the next election, in 2022.
Correction: This article originally stated that the House of Commons has 338 MPPs. In fact, it has 338 MPs. TVO.org regrets the error.