Official party status
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Official party status refers to the Canadian practice of recognizing political parties in the Parliament of Canada and the provincial legislatures. The type of recognition and threshold needed to obtain it varies. However, the most coveted privileges are funding for party research offices and the right to ask questions during Question Period.
Recognition in Parliament allows parties certain parliamentary privileges. Generally official party status is dependent on winning a minimum number of seats (that is, the number of Members of Parliament or Members of the Legislative Assembly elected).
Parliament has two chambers with different requirements. In the House of Commons since 1985, a party must have at least 12 seats to be recognized as an official party. Recognition means that the party will get time to ask questions during question period (proportional to the number of seats) and money for research and staff (also proportional to the number of seats).
In the Senate, a party must have five seats and must be registered by Elections Canada. Once the party has been recognized in the Senate, it retains its status even if it becomes deregistered, so long as it keeps at least five seats. This rule means that the rump Progressive Conservative Party caucus in the Senate qualified for official status after the rest of that party merged into the Conservative Party of Canada.
The provincial legislatures also award official party status:
- In Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Newfoundland and Labrador, a party must have at least four seats. In 2001 B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell was criticized for his decision not to grant the British Columbia New Democratic Party official party status; it was the only opposition party in the legislature, but it had won only two seats in the last election.
- In Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, a party must win at least two seats.
- In Ontario, a party must win eight seats.
- In Quebec, a party must have 12 seats or have captured 20 per cent of the popular vote in the preceding general election.
- In New Brunswick, five seats or 20 per cent of the popular vote in the preceding election is required, though parties with one or more seats have been allowed time in Question Period with consent of other parties.
- In Prince Edward Island, there is no official law, but precedent with the Island New Democrats shows that only a single seat is required.
Federally, the idea of recognizing parties for official status started in 1963. Prior to this, the only opposition recognition was that of the Leader of the Opposition, effectively limiting "official status" to the Government and the largest Opposition party. It was not until 1970 that the Elections Act was amended to allow parties to register and thus have their party name on the ballot.
Rules on official party status are not laws, but are internal rules governing the legislature. Therefore, the members of a legislature may, if they choose, pass a motion to dispense with the rules and grant official status to parties that would otherwise fail to qualify. There are many examples of this practice.
In three of the five most recent general elections (1997, 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2012) the Alberta New Democratic Party has failed to win the requisite four seats to gain official party status in the Legislature. The NDP won four seats only in 2004 and 2012, winning two in each of the other most recent contests. Nevertheless, the Progressive Conservative government has consistently granted party status to the NDP since 1997.
Following the 1999 Ontario general election, the Ontario New Democratic Party were reduced to nine seats in the legislature. The rules at the time of the election called for parties to hold 12 seats to maintain party status. Premier Mike Harris, citing the reduction in seats from 130 to 103 (-20.76%), subsequently lowered the required number of seats for official party status from 12 to 8 (33 1/3%). The mathematically corresponding cut would therefore have been from 12 seats to 9 seats (25%, slightly higher than the seat reduction), or to 10 seats (16 2/3%, slightly lower). In essence, this means Harris' PCs gave the NDP a break.
In the 2003 election, the New Democrats won only seven seats in the Ontario Legislative Assembly. The new Liberal government refused to accord official party status to the NDP, with Premier Dalton McGuinty instead offering the NDP would receive additional funding in return for accepting their status as independents; NDP leader Howard Hampton refused and disrupted the throne speech in protest. MPP Marilyn Churley threatened to legally change her surname to "Churley-NDP" so that the Speaker would be forced to say NDP when recognizing her in the House (a non-official party loses the right to have its members addressed in the Legislature by party affiliation). The PC's Bill Murdoch also considered joining the NDP caucus to help them make official status. Andrea Horwath's by-election win in May 2004 regained official party status for the NDP.
After Churley resigned to run in the 2006 federal election, bringing the party to only seven members again, the government decided to allow the NDP to retain official status pending the results of the by-election to replace her, which the NDP won.
In 1989, the Equality Party won four seats in Quebec's National Assembly (eight seats short of the total needed for official status). Although it did not receive official party status, its members were granted some of the privileges of an official party: their seats in the Assembly were placed together, as were their offices in the Parliament Building. They were also granted a limited number of opportunities to ask questions during Question Period. This precedent was followed when Action démocratique du Québec elected four members in 2003 and seven members in 2008. However, when the seven former ADQ members joined with two former Parti Québécois members in January 2012 to form Coalition Avenir Québec, the governing Liberals and opposition Parti Québécois refused to grant any status to the new party, requiring all nine members to sit as independents.
The Liberals won every seat in New Brunswick's legislature in 1987. The government allowed the Progressive Conservative Party, which finished second place in the election in the number of votes received, to submit written questions to ministers during Question Period.
Official party status is not to be confused with being a registered party. A political party (even if they have no parliamentary seats) may register with Elections Canada or a provincial chief electoral officer. Doing so allows the political party to run candidates for office during elections, issue tax receipts for donations, and spend money on advertising and campaigning during election campaigns. In return, the party must obey campaign spending and donation limits, disclose the source of large donations, and obey various election laws.
- "House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition". Parliament of Canada. 2009. Parliamentary Institutions, Political Parties. Retrieved 5 July 2011.
- "Board of Internal Economy, Members By-Law". Parliament of Canada. 2012. Parliamentary Institutions, Political Parties. Retrieved 29 April 2012.
- "Ontario MPPs play party games". CBC News. 10 November 2003.