How’s this for a Liberal nightmare?
Reduced to rubble in Ontario’s election, the party that governed for nearly 15 straight years finds its capacity to rebuild seemingly dependent on the benevolence of Doug Ford.
The Progressive Conservative premier-designate currently has other things to worry about – his transition team trying to figure out how to turn a grab-bag of promises, including an end to carbon pricing that he said Friday would be his first priority, into action.
But after taking office on June 29, Mr. Ford will face two decisions that will either breathe a bit of life back into the Liberals or push them a little closer to extinction. As he approaches them, he will face divided opinions among Tories about what sort of political landscape suits their future interests.
The more urgent of those choices will be whether to let the Liberals keep official party status despite falling one short of the current eight-seat threshold. At stake is designated time to speak in the province’s legislature – and, more consequentially, legislative funding for staff and other needs.
It would be easier for the Liberals to make the case for official status had they not denied it to the NDP when it was in a similar position in 2003. The New Democrats – who eventually got partial funding back then, before a by-election win got them back to the threshold - will happily give Mr. Ford cover if he wants to be cold-blooded.
But what could really bury the Liberals would be if Mr. Ford also took a hard line on the second choice: whether to maintain the per-vote subsidy for political parties Kathleen Wynne’s government introduced alongside strict new fundraising rules.
The public funding stands to total about $10-million for the Liberals between now and the 2022 election That’s much less than the PCs and NDP are in line for – about $21-million and $17-million. But the other parties don’t need the money as badly.
The Liberals emerged from this election deeper in debt than their rivals, and even when in government struggled to adapt to the new law banning corporate, union and large personal donations. Now, they’re going to be running their party on a shoestring, without much fundraising operation. While possibly needing to make up for lack of a budget at Queen’s Park, if status is denied, they must stage a leadership contest.
Late in the campaign, after Ms. Wynne acknowledged her party would lose, Liberals invoked the subsidy to explain why they were still spending widely on advertising. If a couple of dollars brought a vote, anywhere, it would be money well spent.
That meant ignoring that Mr. Ford said before the election that, if his party won, the subsidy would cease to exist. So why wouldn’t he make good on that now?
Public backlash is unlikely to be a disincentive. There is a solid policy case for the subsidy to stay: Absent more ambitious democratic reform, it’s a nice way for every vote to count, it reduces the incentive for parties to pander to their base, and parties are publicly funded through tax refunds to donors anyway. But as evidenced when the federal Conservatives did away with a similar subsidy, voters don’t rise up in defence of politicians getting more of their money.
If Mr. Ford is swayed by pushback, it will be from those within his own party, arguing that keeping the Liberals too far down could backfire through a lack of centre-left vote-splitting.
Many veterans of PC campaigns believe the ceiling on their popular support isn’t much above 40 per cent. So it helps if the weaker of the major parties to their left is at or above about 20 per cent. This spring, the Tories stopped attacking the Liberals for fear their vote would totally collapse. Do they want them unable to compete at all next time?
Other Tories will answer that question very affirmatively. Liberals win elections. New Democrats usually don’t, and their plateau after a surge in the campaign revealed voter discomfort with them. One-on-one battles with the NDP could be winnable, more often than not.
Mr. Ford can’t create that dynamic on his own. The Liberals’ brand is resilient; their federal turnaround under Justin Trudeau showed the right leader can rapidly restore relevance.
But rarely has a new government had as much ability to decide the fate of the party it replaced in power. It’s not about benevolence, really. The Liberals need Doug Ford to need them.