TORONTO — Ontario’s outgoing Liberals made a pitch to hold on to official party status Friday as they entered a period of extreme uncertainty in the wake of an election that took them from a majority government to a mere seven seats.
Kathleen Wynne, who stepped down as Liberal leader after the party’s dramatic downfall, said she hopes premier-designate Doug Ford will change the rules to grant the designation, which currently requires eight seats in the legislature.
“I think it’s important,” she said. “I hope that Mr. Ford will agree.”
Ford only said he would talk to his team about the issue in the days and weeks to come.
Being a recognized party in the legislature allows parties to have an office for their leader and access resources such as research assistance, but the threshold required for the designation can be changed by legislators, as has been in the past.
The loss of that status is “one more indignity” to the Liberals as they try to rebuild following a devastating defeat that propelled the Progressive Conservatives to power for the first time in 15 years and elevated the New Democrats to the official Opposition, said Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University.
“They’ve been laid lower than they’ve ever been before, (their loss) is not the single worst disaster for a major political party in Canada but it ranks up there,” he said.
“I absolutely think the Ontario Liberal party is coming back, I have no doubt about that but it’s going to be a long road for them … they’re going to need some time to lick their wounds, to retool, to identify a new leadership.”
The party will face financial challenges, both in and out of the legislature, which the loss of party status will aggravate, he said. The legislative assembly’s internal economy board sets aside funds each year to be distributed among official parties.
It’s unlikely the NDP would support loosening the rules around party status considering they were denied a similar reprieve under the Liberals in 2003, Malloy said.
New Democrats were granted some accommodations at the time, including some funding, and earned party status the following year when leader Andrea Horwath won a byelection.
“I don’t really see why the NDP would want to give anything to the Liberals now…memories are long in politics,” Malloy said.
Horwath was pressed on the issue Friday and would only say that the decision was Ford’s to make. “The people gave the Liberals seven seats, that’s what they have in the legislature and that’s what they’re going to have to deal with,” she said.
The Liberals, who had faced voter anger over rising hydro bills and questionable government spending among other issues, said they would weigh their next steps. Asked how long she believes the party will need to recover, Wynne said regardless of the timeline, the work must begin now.
“We need to reconnect with each other now that the election is over and with our communities and use that same capacity that we have had for many, many years to rebuild,” she said. “I can’t tell you how long that’s going to take but our target is four years.”
The party’s president, Brian Johns, said the process to select an interim leader from the seven caucus members was underway, though he declined to say how long it would take or when the party would begin looking for a permanent successor to Wynne.
Former Liberal cabinet minister John Milloy, now a professor of public ethics at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the last thing the party should do is rush to select a permanent leader.
People are exhausted and resources are thin following the campaign, he said, and the party would do better to bide its time.
“I would think that they’d want to consolidate, get their feet under them, figure out how they’re going to operate in the legislature,” he said.
“I could see them choosing … the middle option — someone who’s going to carry the ball for a while and then you sort of have a convention closer to the next election, in a couple of years, where you could actually showcase someone.”
While it’s too early to name contenders to lead the Liberals into the next election, the party has several options to hold the fort before then, he said.
If the Liberals want a “seasoned hand” to act as the party’s caretaker, legislator Michael Gravelle would be a good choice and is respected within the party, he said. Or they could pick among their younger legislators if they want a fresh face who may eventually seek to take up the mantle permanently, he said.
Either way, the party will need to be creative to shore up excitement on a shoestring budget, he said, noting the upcoming federal election will provide an opportunity to capitalize on the federal party’s brand and keep Liberal flames alive.
The Tory majority could play in the party’s favour if the new government proves ineffective or starts making mistakes, he added.
“But the biggest challenge that I think the provincial Liberals have is they’re going to have to differentiate themselves from the New Democratic Party and I think quite frankly that was one of the issues (in the election).”
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press