Martin Regg Cohn: Why opposition politicians are officially status-conscious
New Democrats usually draw consolation from moral victories when they finish last.
This time, after coming a close second, they are celebrating the best of times.
But for progressives who lent their support to the NDP in Thursday’s election — one in three voters — the election of a Doug Ford government may be the worst of times.
Or, to rephrase a preferred NDP slogan, a change for the worse.
Yes, the party ran a passionate and professional campaign, virtually doubling its seat count to the highest level in a generation. But it is surely a bittersweet triumph for progressive voters — 60 per cent of the electorate, if you lump in Liberal and Green supporters — who will wake up every day for the next four years to an avowedly right-wing government led by Ford’s Progressive Conservatives.
Are progressives any further ahead?
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath spent the past four years complaining that the governing Liberals didn’t do enough to advance social issues. Now, New Democrats will watch the Tories dismantle an updated sex-ed curriculum, cancel a minimum-wage increase, remove the caps on greenhouse gas emissions that forestalled climate change, and dump plans to expand free or affordable child care.
If the NDP were to do a status update on its Facebook page, it could boast of moving on up from third-place opposition party to second-place opposition party. It’s official — the New Democrats now form the “official Opposition” at Queen’s Park.
That means more money and staff. But unlike the 2011-14 minority Liberal government, where the third-place New Democrats held the balance of power, the party will have almost no influence on the majority Tory government this time.
Back then, the NDP had only 17 seats. Now, with a bolstered base of 40 seats, surely New Democrats can build on their latest gains to leapfrog into government in the next election, four years hence?
No one likes to rain on an NDP parade, but the 2018 campaign seemed like a perfect storm that might well be the party’s high-water mark: They benefited from an unpopular premier in Kathleen Wynne (the Jimmy Carter of Ontario politics), a tired Liberal party in power for 15 years, a Progressive Conservative party that toppled then-leader Patrick Brown last January (amid allegations of personal and party impropriety), and the emergence of the inexperienced Ford as his successor (who turned out to be a plodding debater and polarizing campaigner).
In short, the stars were in alignment this time as never before for New Democrats. If not now, when?
That’s the question federal New Democrats wrestled with when their party surged ahead of the Liberals to become the official Opposition in Ottawa, thanks to the sagging popularity of then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. As Thomas Mulcair discovered, however, the final push from second place to first place is altogether different (outside of the Western provinces).
As for the Ontario Liberals, rebuilding will be daunting after being reduced to a rump of seven seats. Officially, the NDP gained official Opposition status, while the Liberals fell one seat short of official party status.
Wynne said Friday she hoped the legislature would find a way to support the Liberals, and Ford said he’d consider the idea of official party status. Yet Horwath quickly dismissed the notion, noting dryly that voters had given her Liberal rivals precisely seven seats, so that was that.
Of course, the NDP has been there before, tumbling to seven seats in the 2003 election that swept Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals to power. Back then, New Democrats waged a campaign of legislative guerrilla warfare, resorting to stalling tactics to pressure the governing Liberals into concessions.
After first refusing the request, McGuinty gave in to pressure from the NDP (and warnings from his own Liberal caucus that the shoe might one day be on the other foot): the third party would be recognized during the daily question period and, importantly, sit on committees, plus get enough money to hire a small research and PR staff.
As Horwath pointed out Friday, she was elected a year later in a Hamilton byelection, winning the NDP’s eighth seat and the extra money that comes from official status. But she neglected to mention the 2003 compromise that had preceded it, and showed no evident enthusiasm for such a concession now.
If the McGuinty Liberals were half-right about party status back in 2003, Horwath is wholly wrong about it now (and while two wrongs don’t make a right, two half-rights might).
Horwath’s approach might seem uncharitable, but it is unsurprising. In the partisan competition that is provincial politics, New Democrats disdain Liberals and vice versa — sometimes more than they dislike Tories. They both desperately want the progressive vote all for themselves.
We saw that during the campaign that culminated on Thursday with a Progressive Conservative government. And we saw it again the morning after, in the debate over which party is official and which isn’t.
Proof, perhaps, that politicians are more status-conscious than the rest of us.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn