Official party status is the Westminster practice officially used in the Parliament of Canada and the provincial legislatures of recognizing political parties in Canada. In official documents, this is sometimes referred to as being a recognized party (French: parti reconnu). 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 depends on winning a minimum number of seats (that is, the number of Members of Parliament or Members of the Legislative Assembly elected). 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.
Most of the rules governing official party status are not laws, but are internal rules governing the legislatures. 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 multiple areas.
|House of Commons of Canada||12 seats|
|Senate of Canada||9 seats|
|Legislative Assembly of Alberta||4 seats, although status has been granted to parties with only 2 seats a number of times.|
|Legislative Assembly of British Columbia||4 seats, although status was granted to a party with only 3 seats with reduced funding while it was providing confidence and supply.|
|Legislative Assembly of Manitoba||4 seats|
|New Brunswick Legislative Assembly||5 seats or 20% of the popular vote|
|Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly||2 seats|
|Nova Scotia House of Assembly||2 seats and, with the exception of the official opposition, in the last election the party must have run candidates in three-quarters of the ridings and received at least 10% of the vote.|
|Legislative Assembly of Ontario||Currently 12 seats, the rule calls for 10% of the total number of seats in the Assembly.|
|Prince Edward Island Legislative Assembly||There is no official rule, but precedent shows that only one seat is required.|
|National Assembly of Quebec||12 seats or 20% of the popular vote|
|Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan||2 seats|
|Yukon Legislative Assembly||1 seat, and the party must be registered with Elections Yukon, which requires it to have run candidates in at least two ridings in the previous election|
Under the Canadian War Service Voting Regulations, 1944 membership standings in the House of Commons of eight or more were used to qualify leaders to appoint scrutineers for the special returning offices.
Since the early 1950s, parties other than the government and official opposition had been granted limited rights by a series of rulings in the House of Commons. Following an amendment to the Senate and House of Commons Act in 1963, the leaders of parties with twelve or more recognized members in the House of Commons began to be paid an additional stipend above that paid to all members of the House of Commons. Such recognized partes have also received research funding since 1968.
In 2001, then Speaker Peter Milliken, made a ruling against full party recognition for the Progressive Conservative/Democratic Representative (PC/DR) Coalition which had been formed by 12 members of the recognized PC Party and 8 independent members of the Democratic Representative Caucus. Milliken identified the features of a recognized party as having 12 or more members, appointing slate of House Officers as official spokespeople, and working as a cohesive unit under the same banner but noted the practice related to the recognition of parties rather than parliamentary groups. The Speaker could not grant the PC/DR Coalition full party recognition because the group disavowed the title of being a party.
A party must have at least 12 seats to be recognized as an official party in the House of Commons. Recognition means that the party will get time to ask questions during question period, and money for research and staff (both are proportional to the number of seats.)
In the Senate, a group must have nine seats to be recognized. If the group was registered by Elections Canada in the last 15 years, it is called a recognized party. Otherwise, it is called a recognized parliamentary group, as is the case of the Independent Senators Group, which has been granted some privileges like those of a party.
Prior to 2017, when the Senate adopted a rules amendments to recognize parliamentary groups not affiliated with a political party, the Senate used political party recognition rules first adopted in 2002. The 2002 rules defined a recognized party as having five or more members in the Senate and required that the party be registered by Election Canada at the time of initial recognition. However, once the party was recognized in the Senate, it could retain its status even if it became deregistered, so long as it kept at least five members. In response to a question in an earlier debate about third political party recognition, Jack Austin, at the time the chair of the Senate Rules Committee, stated that the number of five was chosen as a proportional equivalent to the House of Commons 12-member rule.
The second part of the 2002 rule meant that the rump Progressive Conservative caucus in the Senate would have been able to qualify for official status after the rest of that party merged into the Conservative Party except that the initial PC caucus in 2004 after the merger only had three members.
In the general elections of 1997, 2001, and 2008, the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) failed to win the requisite four seats to gain official party status in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. Nevertheless, the governing Progressive Conservatives (PCs) granted party status to the NDP after each election.
After the 2001 general election, new B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, leader of the British Columbia Liberal Party, was criticized for his decision not to grant the NDP official party status. It was the only opposition party in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia but it had won only two of 79 seats in the last election.
Since the 2013 election, the British Columbian Green Party has held their first seat as their then-member Andrew Weaver was elected in Oak Bay-Gordon Head district. After the 2017 election, they gained two more seats thus overall had three seats when the minimum for official party status was four. However, after the party entered a confidence and supply agreement with the New Democratic Party to allow the NDP to form government, it was granted official party status with reduced funding.
In New Brunswick, parties require 5 seats or 20% of the popular vote to get official party status. However, parties with one to four seats have been allowed time in Question Period with consent of other parties. The Liberals won all 58 seats in the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly 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.
Following the 1999 Ontario general election, the Ontario New Democratic Party fell to nine seats in the Ontario Legislative Assembly. The rules at the time of the election called for parties to hold 12 seats to maintain party status. PC 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 10 seats (16 2/3%, slightly lower). In the 2019 fall economic statement, the Ford government changed the rules to 10% of the total number of seats in the Assembly, so it is currently set at 12.
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 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 change her surname legally 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 PCs' 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 the 2018 Ontario general election, the Liberals dropped from a majority government of 55 seats to 7 seats, one seat fewer than official party status. The Green Party of Ontario also elected its first member in the 2018 election and similarly lacks official party status.
In 1989, the Equality Party won four seats in the National Assembly of Quebec (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. The party had no success in subsequent elections, and stopped organizing after the 2003 Quebec election. 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.
In the 2018 Quebec general election, the Official Opposition party Parti Québécois (PQ) fell from 28 to 10 seats, thus falling below the threshold of official party status. Québec solidaire (QS) rose from 3 to 10 seats but did not reach the threshold of 12 to gain official party status. However, before the National Assembly convened, all political parties agreed to give the PQ and QS the status of official parties in the assembly.
Official party status is not to be confused with being a registered party. A political party (even if it has 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, have their candidates' party affiliation identified on the ballot, 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.
The Chief Electoral Officer shall, whenever necessary for the purpose of these Regulations, appoint six scrutineers for duty in the office of each special returning officer. Two of such six scrutineers shall be nominated by the Leader of the Government, two by the Leader of the Opposition and two on the joint recommendation of the Leaders of political groups having a recognized membership in the House of Commons of eight or more.
There shall be paid to each member of the House of Commons, other than the Prime Minister or the member occupying the recognized position of Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, who is the leader of a party that has a recognized membership of twelve or more persons in the House of Commons, an allowance at the rate of four thousand dollars per annum in addition to the sessional allowance payable to such member.
In a ruling on the status in the House of the Progressive Conservative/Democratic Representative Coalition (PC/DR), Speaker Milliken listed the identifying features of a party or a recognized party: there are at least 12 Members in the group; they appoint a slate of House Officers as their official spokespersons; they work as a cohesive unit; and they serve under the same banner. However, this practice relates not to the recognition of groups but to that of parties. In this case, the PC/DR Coalition had 20 Members: there were 12 Members of the recognized Progressive Conservative Party and 8 independent Members who comprised the Democratic Representative Caucus. The Chair was unable to grant full party recognition to the PC/DR Coalition since he could not extend party recognition to a group which disavowed that title and which was clearly an amalgam of a party and a group of independent Members (Debates, September 24, 2001, pp. 5489-92).
A recognized party in the Senate is composed of at least nine senators who are members of the same political party, which is registered under the Canada Elections Act, or has been registered under the Act within the past 15 years. A recognized parliamentary group in the Senate is one to which at least nine senators belong and which is formed for parliamentary purposes. A senator may belong to either one recognized party or one recognized parliamentary group. Each recognized party or recognized group has a leader or facilitator in the Senate.
On the second question about the figure of five members, essentially, we followed the leadership of the House of Commons with respect to its ratio. Our report discusses how they came to the figure 12 as the official number for a party. Through serendipity, it turns out, as the report notes, there was a party with 12 elected members, and the other place accommodated that party with official status at that level. They are 301 members and we are 105. The wisdom of the committee was to take a proportional number — and that number is five — and to follow generally the practices of the other place on this particular subject.