According to BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon, new Premier David Eby has identified the province’s key issues, but his government is failing to address them.
After being acclaimed NDP leader in November, Eby promised rapid action on housing, health care, public safety and climate change.
“I think he’s got the right priorities,” Falcon said in a year-end interview, “but I think my big message to the public is a really straightforward one: These have been the priorities of this government since they got elected in 2017 and there’s a massive chasm between what they’ve promised and the outcomes we’re getting.”
It’s a theme Falcon and other BC Liberal MLAs hammered on throughout the fall session of the legislature. And one he worked into many of his answers during a mid-December interview with The Tyee in which he talked about the NDP’s failures, what he would do differently and how he’s changed since he was last in power.
“This government is really good at announcements,” said Falcon, who recently gained approval from BC Liberal party members to change the name to BC United — a shift he’s said will be made official when the timing is right.
But the gap between the NDP’s announcements and the outcomes people can see in their communities is huge, he said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime and I’m going to hold them to account for the results.”
Talking about health care, for example, Falcon pointed out one in five people in the province lacks a regular primary care provider, a million people are on wait lists to see a specialist, walk-in clinics have the longest wait times in the country and families taking sick children to emergency departments can wait upwards of 12 hours.
“Those are not good outcomes,” he said.
On crime and public safety, in the more than five years — from 2017 to 2022 — that Eby was B.C.’s attorney general, the situation became “nightmarish” in many communities in Falcon’s assessment.
“People genuinely don’t feel safe anymore,” he said, adding that he’s skeptical recent announcements promising a host of public safety measures will make a difference.
“I will wait until I see any change in outcomes.”
And despite Eby’s time as minister responsible for housing, Falcon said things have worsened.
“After two terms of the NDP government, we’ve ended up with the most expensive housing in North America.”
And then there’s the financial chaos at BC Housing, the Crown corporation responsible for social housing, he said, giving credit to The Tyee for its investigative reporting on the agency.
“There’s a pattern with this government of deviousness and lack of transparency when it comes to giving out information that I think should worry British Columbians, and there’s no better evidence than in BC Housing,” he said, citing a buried audit report and releases timed to minimize the amount of attention they would receive.
Governments often take that approach to bad news, Falcon acknowledged, but stressed that he personally did what he could when he was in cabinet to be forthcoming.
“You’ll remember me when I was a minister, I would not do that,” he said. “I refused to. In fact when I was minister of finance I remember having a back-and-forth with the Premier’s Office about a bad audit report that we had ordered, I had ordered, at ICBC, and I refused to release it on a Friday,” Falcon said.
Instead he held a press conference at a time when media would be paying attention, walked through the report and was as transparent about it as he could be, he said.
“At the end of the day I think that when you’re in government, if you’re afraid to release information that may be damaging or critical to your own government, you have to question whether you should still be in government. I really believe that. Now, not all my colleagues share that, but that’s something I actually believe in.”
Similarly, he pledged that if he becomes premier he’ll get rid of the new $10 application fee public bodies can charge to people making freedom of information requests, though he would look for ways to limit requests from anyone who is genuinely abusing the system.
“I think that more information out to the public is better, even when it hurts us,” he said.
Falcon, now 59, was first elected as a BC Liberal in 2001. Then-premier Gordon Campbell named him minister of state for deregulation, a position where he was to find and cut government red tape. He later served in more senior ministries with responsibility for transportation, health services and finance. He left provincial politics in 2013, having sought the BC Liberal leadership a couple of years earlier and narrowly losing it to Christy Clark. Anthem Capital, a real estate investment firm, hired him as a vice-president and employed him until his winning campaign last year to replace Andrew Wilkinson as BC Liberal leader.
In opposition, Falcon finds himself on the opposite side of positions he once held. For example, he said he now supports raising income and disability assistance payments, even though the rates remained frozen through much of his time in cabinet.
“They didn’t go up enough,” he said. “I acknowledge that. We were in different times. I think in a time like this when government has these kinds of surpluses, then yeah, we have to reflect that those at the lowest end of the income scale are suffering the most. They’re going to be challenged the most and they ought to be provided the most support.”
He recognizes that many observers have a tough time believing that the U-turn he has made on social issues is genuine, but said that back then, the government was trying to dig B.C. out of a financial hole while at the same time reducing income and corporate taxes that were the highest in the country.
“Not every decision was the right one,” said Falcon. “I’ve always acknowledged that, but we got the big things right. We got us back to a balanced budget, we got us back to paying down debt, we restored our triple-A credit rating, we invested in more infrastructure than any other government since W.A.C. Bennett and we brought in North America’s first revenue-neutral carbon tax, which I think are all things that we can be very proud of. But we did not get everything right.”
He also understands that many see him as a particularly ideologically driven conservative, but argued that his views have moderated as he’s aged.
“Maybe having kids changes you a little bit,” he said. “I don’t think it changes my principles, but your values kind of change and I think you think about the world a little bit differently... I was probably a little more strident back then, for sure. We all are in our youth, right? So that’s fair.”
How he looks at the balance between his long-held financial conservatism and the ability of government to spend money to make a difference for people is evident in his answer about what he would do with the $5-billion budget surplus the government has accrued in the first six months of the fiscal year.
“I’d be pretty strategic about how I used it and make sure the dollars we’re spending are tied directly to improved results that I’d want to see,” Falcon said. “For me that would include expanding the number of funded residencies so that we can get more international medical graduates into British Columbia so that they can practise.”
But he’d also use some to strengthen the province’s overall fiscal position by paying down debt.
“I do think we have a responsibility to still be fiscally responsible, recognizing that we’ve got troubled times on the horizon economically,” he said. “Everything has a season and I think the season of big government, big spending, ‘let’s not worry about the ramifications,' is coming to an end and people are starting to realize there are going to be some implications.”
And what are his best ideas to address the province’s top priorities?
On housing, he said, “My biggest priority… would be to bring in legislative changes that require certainty and timeliness around the approval process, and that I would couple with incentives — financial incentives — to municipalities who are doing the right thing… but have financial penalties for those municipalities who aren’t doing their share.”
In health care he would do more to allow international medical graduates to practise in the province and find ways to innovate.
“Having the courage to experiment and try to do things differently within a publicly funded, universally accessible system is, I think, really important.”
On crime he would push to tighten bail requirements.
“I’d give clear direction to Crown counsel, through the attorney general, to make it clear that the interest of public safety must take precedence over the interest of violent repeat offenders to have the right to be released back into society.”
On climate issues he offered no concrete ideas, but stressed he believes humans are changing the climate and there’s a need to reduce carbon emissions.
“I want us to be the leader on climate that we were when Gordon Campbell and our government brought in North America’s first revenue-neutral carbon tax, something that was opposed viciously by this current NDP crowd, and they fought an election against us over that.”
There are more details to come, Falcon said. With a provincial election scheduled for October 2024, and some expecting one sooner, he said over the next six to 12 months his party will roll out its detailed policies.