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BC Politics

Kevin Falcon, Baggage Handler

Why the New Democrats would be foolish to take lightly the new BC Liberal leader.

Paul Willcocks 7 Feb

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publisher of newspapers, and now an editor with The Tyee.

Don’t underestimate Kevin Falcon.

Yes, the new BC Liberal leader is another aging white guy dragging a tonne of baggage, some of it smelling like it’s filled with rotting fish. He’s hardly the face of renewal after 12 years as a loyal cabinet minister in the Gordon Campbell government.

But New Democrats celebrating Falcon’s win on social media could end up choking on their words.

It’s easy to list all the reasons Falcon is a bad choice.

The NDP has already launched attacks based on his record in government, with Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation Ravi Kahlon tweeting that Falcon had increased “ICBC rates, MSP rates and unfair tolls on people” and cut services “like health care, seniors care and education.”

A long stint in the public eye means there are lots of other opportunities — like the time Falcon, then transportation minister, complained about being stuck in traffic as police spent hours talking with a distraught woman on the Second Narrows Bridge.

Or his support for Maxime Bernier as federal Conservative leader.

Or his quick jump from government — where the BC Liberals did nothing effective to deal with rising home prices — to a vice-president job with developer Anthem Properties.

But Falcon is a formidable opponent for the New Democrats. He’s an effective and creative political organizer, who as an SFU political science student helped organize the Socred-aligned Surrey Electors Team and ran its first campaign in 1990. The civic party dominated Surrey politics and gave current Mayor Doug McCallum his start.

And as a supposedly nonpartisan activist, he organized the Total Recall campaigns in 1998 and 1999. The ostensible aim was to force the already wounded NDP government out by using recall legislation to get rid of up to 40 MLAs. It failed to accomplish that, but still kept the New Democrats off balance and energized the BC Liberal base.

Falcon is also good at the daily work of politics — pleasing supporters, seeming reasonable to the undecided and getting under the skin of opponents. When he finds a Liberal MLA willing to resign and wins a byelection, he’ll score far more political points, inside and outside the legislature, than the hapless Andrew Wilkinson.

And he starts from a far different place than his predecessor.

Few BC Liberals actually thought Wilkinson would be the best leader. On the first ballot at the 2018 leadership convention, he finished fifth. Almost 85 per cent of Liberals who cast ballots wanted someone else. He won because he was seen as a tolerable second, third or fourth choice.

Falcon easily led the field throughout the voting this time, with 47 per cent of the points on the first ballot. (The race was scored based on giving each riding 100 points and allocating them based on members’ votes in the riding.)

That’s not necessarily an accurate indicator of support, as it can simply show which candidate’s organizers signed up the most new members. BC Liberal membership almost doubled to 43,000 during the leadership campaign. Falcon’s rivals complained his campaign had broken membership rules in signing up supporters.

But it’s a way better start than Wilkinson had.

There were murmurings of division during the campaign. Leadership candidate Val Litwin said he’d leave the party if Falcon won. Candidate Renee Merrifield urged her supporters to make their second choice anyone other than Falcon.

The fact that I needed, in both cases, to remind readers they were even candidates suggest their impact was small. Litwin won six per cent of the points on the first ballot; Merrifield three per cent.

The first job of any BC Liberal leader is to prevent a split of the party’s centre-right coalition. The second, right now, is to lure back the urban/suburban voters who rejected the party in the 2020 election.

And Falcon is the most likely leadership candidate to achieve those two goals. His time in the Campbell government, and his support for Bernier as federal Conservative leader, gives him credibility with voters on the right side of the political spectrum. His political skills and Lower Mainland base provide at least a hope of convincing voters the BC Liberals aren’t social conservative, climate-change denying dinosaurs hopelessly out of touch with the challenges of most British Columbians.

The second-place finish of Ellis Ross, the Skeena MLA and former Haisla Nation chief councillor, should give Falcon pause. Ross, pro-fossil fuel, and an advocate for B.C.’s north and interior, won 34 per cent of the vote.

But Falcon should be able to convince Ross that the best way to achieve his goals for the province is to elect a BC Liberal government. And offer him a big role should that happen.

Falcon’s main job isn’t to persuade voters that his party would be a great choice to govern. It’s to persuade them the NDP government deserves to be booted out.

Premier John Horgan has made that difficult. The biggest takeaway from his government since 2017 has been a commitment not to mess up. He was cautious around big issues like Site C and old-growth logging, quick to let health experts take the lead on COVID-19.

The scheduled election is 2024. Horgan may be running again. Or not.

And Kevin Falcon will be waiting.  [Tyee]

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