There are many obvious reasons for the Liberals’ disastrous showing in the recent Ontario provincial election. A charisma-challenged leader, virtually unknown to voters (“that bald guy”) is one. An uninspiring platform is another. A campaign heavy on childish stunts (a heckler in a chicken suit at a Conservative rally, really?) and short on a solid, sustained communications plan is yet another. Then there was the Conservatives’ successful but bizarre re-packaging of Doug Ford as a friend of unions and the working class, and their amazingly effective campaign strategy of keeping not only Ford but most of his candidates out of the public eye and absent from any meaningful interviews or candidate debates. Last but hardly least, widespread public apathy following more than two years of pandemic restrictions clearly favoured the status quo as a security blanket, leading to the lowest voter turnout ever at 43%.
Still, all of these immediate factors need not have led to such a devastating rout for the Liberal Party rather than a more modest defeat. In fact one of the most important elements of the Liberal collapse in 2022 is also one of the most overlooked, namely, their failure to obtain official party status after the previous election in 2018. Indeed it is difficult to overestimate the importance of this fact, which severely hobbled the party for the last four years. Yet most voters were, and still are, completely unaware of this situation, and the severe constraints it imposes on any potential party rebuilding efforts.
Why is this important? Consider two similar examples at the federal level and the fate of the parties involved.
In 1993 the Chretien Liberals obtained a substantial majority, defeating the governing Mulroney/Campbell Progressive Conservatives. The Reform Party and Bloc Quebecois won 52 and 54 seats respectively, almost entirely at the expense of the PCs, who were reduced to a mere 2 seats from the 156 they had held at dissolution. Meanwhile the NDP was limited to only 9 seats, down from their pre-election representation of 44.
At the time, House rules stated that a party must have 12 seats to be considered an official political party. Without official party status, none of the party’s MPs, including its leader, had an automatic right to pose questions in the House of Commons during Question Period, the event most widely covered by the media and the most publicly recognized aspect of parliamentary business. Yet It could be days or even weeks before the Speaker would recognize such an orphan MP to pose a single question. Similarly, without official party status, none of the party’s MPs including its leader had an automatic right to participate as members of parliamentary committees, where their criticism of government legislation, or questioning of witnesses, could provide an alternative means to obtain media attention. Finally, and arguably most importantly, lack of official party status meant that the leader and the MPs in the NDP and PC caucuses would receive absolutely no public funding for research, communications or even administrative support, while the Reform and Bloc would receive six figures worth of funding each to hire dozens of expert support staff.
As it happened, the new Liberal government recognized how serious this situation could be. They also knew that, along with the Liberals, the NDP and Conservatives had been the most important mainstream parties in Canada for nearly a century, and that this new situation was likely an aberration. And of course they knew that a healthy, vibrant democracy requires credible opposition parties capable of forming a government, which neither the Bloc nor the Reform Party could conceivably have done. Almost immediately they re-wrote the rules, lowering the number of seats required so that the NDP was in fact recognized as an official party and eligible for the participation and support listed above. And although this was a bridge too far in the case of the PCs with only two seats, several informal concessions were made to provide a modest level of support for them as well. The rest is history. The NDP recovered and even went on to become the Official Opposition in 2011. The PCs were unable to dig themselves out of their political hole and eventually disappeared to become part of the new Conservative Party in which the Reform/Alliance Party immediately became the tail wagging the dog.
Fast forward to 2018 in Ontario. Doug Ford’s Conservatives had won a substantial majority, the NDP had become the Official Opposition, and the Liberals, for the first time in their history, did not even manage to obtain the 10 seats needed for recognition as an official political party. Did Ford amend the rules to accommodate a party that, with 7 MLAs, was only three seats short? No. Did he offer any financial support of any kind to the Liberal leader or his MLAs for research, communications or administrative purposes? No.
Instead, in the legislature the Liberal Party, for all intents and purposes, did not exist. Not surprisingly, then, it did not exist for the most part in the media or public consciousness either. And equally unsurprising, when it came time to choose a new leader, an invisible non-party with no ability to be seen or heard in the legislature did not attract stellar candidates to lead it out of the wilderness. Without staff and resources, developing a platform and organizing a campaign also posed a daunting challenge. Nor was the party likely to have much success raising alternative funding from outside sources. Confronted with this substantial disadvantage, the fact that the Liberals actually managed to pay off the debt from the 2018 campaign and raise sufficient funds to support a basic campaign in 2022 is little short of astonishing. But the dismal results, although perhaps worse than expected due to low voter turnout, are not.
On top of everything else, the invisibility of the Liberals led to lopsided polling results in the lead up to the actual election campaign, convincing many Liberal and NDP voters it was hopeless. Nevertheless the Liberals still received one in four of the votes cast in Ontario this time, actually leading the NDP and receiving roughly 25% of the popular vote to the latter’s 23%. Yet the Liberals elected only 8 MLAs while the NDP elected 31. Last but not least, keep in mind that Ford’s Conservatives achieved their huge majority of 84 seats with only 41% of the actual vote, ( compared with more than 50% for the Liberals, NDP and Greens together), and – given the record low turnout of 43% – this means that barely one in 6 Ontarians have given the province another four years of Doug Ford. Since Ford is unlikely to change the rules for the Liberals with their current 8 seats rather than their 7 seats last time, it also means that the Liberals are doomed to another four years without official party status. Good luck with that.