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Just How Conservative Is Kevin Falcon?

Hint: He aims to strip the name Liberal from the party he served and now leads.

Steve Burgess 5 May 2022TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Kevin Falcon is the leader of British Columbia's official Opposition party, although we don't know exactly what that party will be called. On Feb. 5, the 59-year-old former deputy premier won the BC Liberal Party leadership, taking 52 per cent of the fifth ballot vote. Last Saturday he earned a seat in the legislature with an easy byelection victory in the Vancouver-Quilchena riding, traditional home of BC Liberal leaders.

Falcon would now like to draw the curtain on the past and rebrand the provincial party for the future. That rebranding plan may well extend to Falcon himself.

Falcon was born in 1963 and grew up in West Vancouver. His father Brian sold vacation homes; his mother Jacqueline was a nurse. The Falcon family would eventually suffer two tragedies — Kevin's father developed the neuromuscular disorder Shy-Drager Syndrome, and in 1986 his older brother Greg died from complications after a serious horse riding accident.

Falcon graduated from Shaughnessy-based Catholic boys school Vancouver College and spent some time in the insurance trade before returning to school at Simon Fraser University in the 1980s. His classmate Christy Clark was a young Liberal on campus; Falcon was a member of the Young Socreds.

Of the two, Falcon chose the more conservative and power-entrenched party in the province. The Social Credit party dominated B.C. politics from 1952 to 1991. Its alliance of business-boosters and fiscal and social conservatives reigned for four decades except for three years of NDP rule from 1972 to 1975. At SFU, Falcon earned a bachelor of arts; he later attend UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

As a Young Socred Falcon cited Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as political heroes. Falcon can take a least a modicum of credit for boosting the career of alleged accident victim Doug McCallum through his work in the ’90s for McCallum's Surrey Electors Team. He would go on to make a bigger splash organizing the “Total Recall” effort against members of Glen Clark's NDP government in the late ’90s. “Have you had enough yet?” the recall ads asked, lauding Alberta’s “economic miracle.” Then-BC Liberal leader Gordon Campbell took notice.

Falcon would prove to be a handy resource for Campbell from the beginning. He defeated incumbent Liberal MLA Bonnie McKinnon for the party nomination in Surrey-Cloverdale after McKinnon butted heads with Campbell. “I found as a woman in politics that it was certainly a male arena,” McKinnon said later.

Elected in 2001 as part of Campbell's 77-seat sweep, the 38-year-old Falcon was promptly made minister of deregulation which was, paradoxically, a new portfolio. Falcon asked government ministries to slash red tape by a third. This often amounted to cutting government oversight, which left industries to pollute and plunder the environment, critics said.

In 2004 he made the jump to the Ministry of Transportation where he pushed through the controversial Gateway project that included replacement of the Port Mann Bridge.

The move certainly proved Falcon's flexibility — from a portfolio devoted to spending cuts he had moved to green-lighting the most expensive piece of roadway in Canada, a project that became an even bigger budget-buster when private partners dropped out and the government was forced to take over. (Tolls on the project would later gift NDP Leader John Horgan a handy campaign issue.) Falcon also oversaw the Sea-to-Sky Highway expansion that paved the way, literally, to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Having been tested in a hot political kitchen, in 2009 Falcon was rewarded with even hotter turf at the Ministry of Health. More budget cuts ensued. There were initiatives too — in 2010 the ministry announced the “GP For Me” program, promising every British Columbian a family doctor. Target date: 2015.

A man in a dark suit, gold tie and glasses — Kevin Falcon — stands flanked by BC Liberal politicians as he speaks to members of the press.
Kevin Falcon announces new caucus support for his BC Liberal leadership bid in January 2011. He’d lose to rival Christy Clark, who had just one MLA in her corner but polled far higher with the public. Second-place Falcon, in fact, had the highest negative rating among declared candidates. Photo via Kevin Falcon Flickr.

In November 2010, Premier Campbell announced his plans to step aside. Four candidates were on the ballot for the Feb. 26, 2011 leadership vote — Falcon, his old school pal Christy Clark, George Abbott and Mike de Jong. Falcon boasted the most caucus support while Clark had just a single MLA in her corner. But early polling showed strong public support for Clark while Falcon had the highest negative rating among declared candidates, always the danger of being the government's designated hatchet man.

Still, Falcon fought hard, attacking Clark as not just a BC Liberal but a real one — the federal kind. Falcon himself was a representative of the Campbell-styled provincial party that was Liberal in name only. Falcon's federal ties were to the Conservatives (he backed Maxime Bernier for that party’s leadership in 2017).

After the first ballot Clark had a solid 10 per cent lead over Falcon. Abbott was the biggest gainer on ballot two, but not enough to stay in contention. On the third ballot the anybody-but-Christy crowd finally shuffled over to Falcon's camp but it was too late. By a margin of 52 per cent to 48 per cent Christy Clark was the new BC Liberal leader and provincial premier.

Clark promptly named Falcon deputy premier and minister of finance. But the silver medal was not enough to keep him in the fold. Falcon subsequently announced he would not run again in 2013. Instead he joined investment company Anthem Capital Corp. as executive vice-president, raised a young family, and became active in philanthropic work. He flashed his interest in returning to politics during the 2019 federal election, when Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, Falcon by his side, announced before clicking cameras that if his party won he’d have Falcon head a commission on reducing subsidies to corporations.

We know how that turned out. But now the Falcon kids might have to make their own lunches. Dad is back in politics.

Two middle-aged white men in suits stand in a room laughing, the Canadian flag behind them.
Then-federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, right, shares a laugh with Kevin Falcon at a campaign stop in Burnaby in October 2019, announcing that if elected as prime minister he would appoint Falcon to lead a commission on trimming subsidies to corporations. Photo by Jonathan Hayward, the Canadian Press.

When he declared his leadership candidacy a year ago, Falcon also declared his intention to change the party name. Falcon has never been comfortable with the Liberal brand, saying he favours a name with no federal associations.

And what of Falcon himself?

He appears eager to downplay his past as Gordon Campbell's Mad Slasher, presenting himself as a kinder, gentler fiscal conservative who is focused on market-driven housing affordability. Gone is the disgruntled minister who complained in 2008 after police closed the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge for a suicidal woman, replaced by a guy who insists his goal for the party is inclusion for women and LGBTQ2S+ voters. Will it work for him? As politicians like Erin O'Toole have recently discovered, the “kinder, gentler conservative” gambit can be a walk along a razor's edge.

During the recent byelection, the NDP, as expected, attacked him as a heartless budget cutter. But BC Conservative Party candidate Dallas Brodie came at Falcon from the other side, running ads declaring that “Kevin Falcon and Justin Trudeau are two sides of the same Liberal coin.” (Falcon must have ruefully recognized that line of attack from his own playbook.)

The leadership contest too held warning signs for Falcon. The runner-up with a solid 34 per cent was Skeena MLA Ellis Ross, a climate-change skeptic. The tide in conservative politics is running strongly right and populist, and if Falcon poses as a reborn moderate he could find himself facing an electoral challenge from the BC Conservatives, whose candidate Brodie drew nearly seven per cent of the vote in in the Vancouver-Quilchena byelection — a degree of right-wing vote-splitting that could hand close ridings to the NDP.

Still, Falcon is not in a bad position overall. No one could plausibly dispute that he is an upgrade on the charisma-free Andrew Wilkinson. Ironically for an infamous budget cutter, his history of mega-projects could work in his favour. Falling ice chunks aside, the new Port Mann Bridge is popular enough, while the expanded Sea-to-Sky is a bona fide smash. Falcon gets credit from colleagues for being a dedicated policy wonk and a good communicator, often balancing his undeniably conservative ideology with pragmatism.

Any government can fall prey to voter fatigue. Whatever name he eventually puts on the party banner, Falcon may well be poised to carry it to victory.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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