If Ontario Liberals lose 'recognized party' status after Thursday's election, what comes next?

If the Ontario Liberals lose official party status after Thursday's election, what does that mean? And how does a party stay relevant when it’s been reduced to what looks like bystander status?

According to CBC's Poll Tracker, the Liberals may be reduced to a handful of seats

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne has conceded that her party will not win the upcoming election and that she will no longer be premier. What remains to be seen is how the Liberals will fare in terms of elected MPPs. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

If recent polls are correct, the Liberals look poised to drop from the governing party in Ontario to losing their official party status.

As of June 5, according to the CBC News poll tracker, the Progressive Conservatives were at 37.6 per cent support, the NDP at 36.1 and the Liberals at 19.9 per cent.

As a result, seat projections were at 74 for the PCs, 48 for the NDP and two for the Liberals. That would be a stunning, though not unheard of, fall for a governing party that has been in power for 15 years.

But what does losing party status mean in Ontario? And how does a party stay relevant when it's been reduced to what looks like bystander status?

In this province, the standing orders of the legislature declare that any party with fewer than eight seats loses its status as a "recognized party" and, with that status, the funding for administrative staff and research activities that help inform the caucus's work.

The party also loses designated time to speak in the legislature and must instead be recognized by the speaker, who can make allowances to recognize MPPs to speak.

'Keep hammering on those key issues'

Strategist Lise Jolicoeur, a director at StrategyCorp and a former communications director to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, said Tuesday there are still ways a party can stay relevant when it's bringing fewer than eight members to a session of the legislature.

Members can ensure they get permission to speak during debates on key issues, so their voices are still heard by both their opponents and the public. She uses federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May as an example of a single member who is still a strong, vocal advocate for her issues.

"She is a strong voice, holds press conferences, does what she can to be heard," Jolicoeur said

And the party should focus on key issues, as well as on staying positive, she said.

"Keep hammering on those key issues that matter to people the most," she said. "Often what happens is you try to be everything for everybody and that's where you lose your momentum."

With the Liberals looking more and more likely to lose a large number of seats, polls suggest Thursday's vote will be a contest between PC Leader Doug Ford and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The second component to coping with a resounding defeat is to fortify party ranks, work that would be going on as the remaining sitting members do what they can to make an impact in the legislature.

"The great thing about going down so much, there's no way to go but up afterwards," Jolicoeur told CBC Toronto. "It's also great to bring in fresh blood and new ideas and to re-invigorate the party."

As Jolicoeur noted, the 2018 Ontario Liberals wouldn't be the first party to face major losses a general election. In 2006, the federal Liberals went from minority government status to official opposition, before being kicked back down to third-party status in 2011. In the 1993 federal election, the governing Progressive Conservatives were trounced, winning just two seats.

"There's always opportunity when there's defeat, if you will," Jolicoeur said. "It's not surprising, of course not."

'Time and money' always needed

To Dennis Pilon, associate professor of political science at York University, dropping from recognized party status is a big deal on the funding front, but less so when it comes to the work the party is still able to do.

The MPPs that are elected will still be allowed to speak in the legislature, hold the government to account outside the legislature and advocate for constituents. But losing funding will have an impact on just how effective they can be.

"For parties to be up on policy, for them to be able to put forward new ideas, all that takes time and money to develop. So that's really the implication," Pilon told CBC Toronto.

"They would lack some of the funds that would allow them to perhaps drill down into the plans that the government puts forward."

But parties are also able to raise funds and seek the help of volunteers to do work, particularly outside the halls of the legislature.

"It's not like they don't have other options," Pilon said. "It's not like their name is going to be stripped off the ballot in future elections."

In fact, the size of the loss or victory by the new government is exaggerated by the first-past-the-post system, Pilon said. Even if the Liberals are reduced to a couple of seats, they still appear poised to receive as much as 20 per cent of voter support. He said that's not a bad place to begin rebuilding party support from.

"In a more mathematically accurate system, they would end up on election day with considerably more seats than what they are going to end up with in our system," Pilon said.

"So I think that's also something that people need to be aware of, is that the vote totals of the winning party are an exaggeration of their support, and the vote totals for the losing party are also an exaggeration of their defeat."