Widely seen as the instant favourite in the race to lead the BC Liberals, Kevin Falcon made a splash this week. Rob Shaw asked him at length about the race, the party, and the future.
BC Liberal leadership contender Kevin Falcon surged to the front of the pack when he announced his candidacy last week, with a focus on expelling intolerant members, rebranding the party and picking a new slate of diverse candidates to steer into the next election.
But how, exactly, would he do it?
Falcon is not the first candidate (of any political party) to promise to usher in a new era, only to be kneecapped by something – recalcitrant MLAs, uncooperative riding associations, the internal political compromises that chip away at a leader’s moral resolve for reform, or any combination of these and other factors.
In a recent interview with Falcon, I asked him how he’d avoid these pitfalls. It’s worth putting his answers on the record, for the future.
The first step is convincing remaining stalwarts in the BC Liberal Party that things have to change dramatically. The party in October suffered its worst loss in almost 30 years, now largely confined to rural and northern B.C. after being pushed out of the vote-rich and fast-growing Lower Mainland.
“I don’t think it’s on the verge of irrelevancy, but it’s in a crisis and we would be less than honest if we didn’t acknowledge that,” said Falcon.
“Look, we have to recognize the fact that we did go through one of our most difficult losses ever. I don’t blame all that by the way, on Andrew Wilkinson, or the BC Liberals, I think there was a very cynical election call by an NDP government that was prepared to violate the fixed election terms that the BC Liberals brought in to avoid exactly that kind of cynical politicking.
“And I think it was also doubly unfair to both the BC Greens and the BC Liberals because they had laid down their weapons if you will, to use that analogy, and work with the government to get through the pandemic together on behalf of all British Columbians.
“So the NDP benefited from a long period of time where there was no criticism effectively, because the opposition was working with them and then they took advantage of that, called the election, and they won. Okay, so that’s fine. That’s in the past. We paid a big price. How are we going to come out of this?
“Well, part of the name change is also part of a reboot, a reboot that says this is going to be a different party under Kevin Falcon, for sure. There’s a lot of things that I quietly watched while I was in the private sector that bothered me. I think we could have been far more ambitious on policy areas, especially in child care, housing affordability and campaign finance frankly – I was appalled at how long we left that going without fixing it. The NDP brought in a solution that I think is at best a half-baked solution, I’m not sure it’s the perfect solution. But nevertheless, I think that we could have responded to a lot of those issues and we could have been much more ambitious and trying to deal with those…
“The first way you come back from a challenge is to acknowledge the challenge and be upfront and honest about the challenges we face, but also how we’re going to deal with those challenges. And I believe in moving fast, I believe in making decisions and I believe in inspiring confidence. The way you do that is you are honest with the membership, you’re honest about what needs to be done, you’re clear about what needs to be done, and what you’re going to stand for, and then you move forward. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”
“Stand for something”
Falcon said the overarching goal of his campaign is to spell out a clear agenda that will give the party something to rally around during a nine-month race in which most people will be preoccupied by COVID-19 and getting vaccinated.
“As I talk about a Kevin Falcon-led BC Liberal party, I want to be crystal clear up front what kind of party I’m talking about.
“It’s going to be diverse, it’s going to be welcoming, it’s going to say we are regardless of what your sexual orientation is, what your ethnic background is, what your socioeconomic status is – if you share our principles and our vision for the province of British Columbia, you are going to be embraced and welcomed and loved as part of this party. Full stop.
“Going forward, we’re going to make sure that we stand for something again, because when we stand for something and believe in something, that’s how you get people excited wanting to follow you.
“I’m not short of any ideas, I can assure you of that. I still have the same passion for public policy as I always have, and I’m going to be pushing that very hard, very aggressively.”
The tolerance question
Diverse and welcoming sounds good, but leading the BC Liberal party’s free-enterprise mix of liberals and conservatives has long been a delicate balancing act for leaders, especially on the social policy side.
Gordon Campbell made clear the issue of opposing abortion rights was off the table when he took the job, whipping into place any MLAs who felt otherwise.
Christy Clark tried to hold the same line on supporting LGBTQ+ rights, but began to lose control of social conservatives like Chilliwack’s Laurie Throness.
By the time Andrew Wilkinson took power, Throness was openly talking about the Bible’s view on traditional marriage, while caucus leaders like Rich Coleman had fallen out of line to attend public rallies against abortion and legal medically-assisted suicide.
All of that has led to the NDP portraying the BC Liberals as a party willing to look the other way on homophobia and bigotry in its candidates, to win certain rural ridings.
That, in turn, has cost the BC Liberals support of moderate urban voters who have largely moved on from the debates about same-sex marriage and a women’s right to choose.
Falcon faces a similar dilemma: It’s fine to call for tolerance and acceptance, but what happens when an MLA whose seat the party desperately needs spouts homophobia or bigotry? Falcon said he’d kick them out.
“The first thing, I think, is clarity. That’s why I talked about it on day one when I was running, because I don’t want there to be any confusion and any doubt as to the kind of party that Kevin Falcon wishes to lead. And if I am successful, and I earn the honour and support of the members of this party to be their leader to be the leader of the opposition, I do so with a mandate – a mandate that was formed by being clear about what it is I will be standing for and what kind of party I want to lead.
“And I think that helps, because then when people are joining the party and wanting to be candidates, we’re very clear as to the tone and the direction the leader of the party has set. And if they can’t live with the tone and direction, they ought not to be members of the party and they ought not to run for the party…
“We’re a big tent. And in a big tent with a common sense of purpose and vision, we can all try and get along, we can all respect our differences, respectfully, but it will be done respectfully and it will be done with tolerance”
The Falcon campaign seems set to run a two-pronged leadership race: Stumping for votes among members in the 87 ridings, but at the same time trying to identify young, diverse community leaders or local councillors ready to step up as candidates in the next election.
Yet even then, there’s no assurance those people can run for the party.
Each riding association has enough autonomy to select its own candidates – and sometimes they aren’t the ones the leader prefers. Riding associations are usually controlled by incumbent MLAs, who try to pick their successor when they retire, whether the leader wants that person or not.
The BC Liberal party constitution allows its leader to bypass that process and appoint candidates – but it’s used sparingly, because it angers and alienates the volunteer riding association members the party relies upon to fundraise and organize behind the scenes.
When I asked Falcon what he’d do, he gave the very strong suggestion that he intends to tightly control the nomination of party candidates for the next election, above and beyond the local membership. It would be an interesting dynamic to watch.
“I think the secret is, and something that we have not done well, is because we’re a party that believes in equality of opportunity and we’re a party that says come on in and may the best person win – that’s great, except that the challenge is, there are kind of hidden barriers that make it more difficult for some with different backgrounds to be able to access these corridors of nominations and winning nominations and becoming candidates and winning in their seats.
“I think that’s where the leader makes a difference.
“The leader has to go out and recruit those individuals, run them in ridings where they have a very good chance of winning, but continue to support them, support them by helping them raise money, support them by helping them expand their networks, support them by making sure that they’re getting known in the community so that they can have that chance to actually get elected and become an important member of the team.”
Dancing with the NDP
The BC Liberals may hate the B.C. New Democrats, but that doesn’t mean the public does. Premier John Horgan has consistently polled as one of, if not the most, popular premiers in the country. He shepherded the party to a majority in October on the back of his own brand (and the distraction of COVID-19).
In short: Most British Columbians actually like Horgan and his mostly centrist government.
Falcon admits this as well. His goal, he said, is to instead appeal to voters on the issue of competency and experience. That will involve taking some B.C. NDP-led ideas like $10-a-day childcare, which Falcon has said he’s supported since the mid-2000s, and pushing them forward even harder than the NDP, to try and convince voters that a different party would produce faster results on key issues.
“I think John’s a good person, and I like John – so I think I start by saying.”
“We both have the Irish blood, so there’s a kinship right away, at least I feel that about John, he might not feel the same.
“I think, yes, he’s been a good politician, for sure, but you know as we come out of this global pandemic, being a good politician isn’t going to be enough, candidly. We’re going to need real leadership, and we’re going to need real results. And what that means is we’re going to need people that are going to be able to instil confidence in the small business community to get back up off their knees, those that survive, and to have the confidence to invest in rebuild. And it’s going to be tough. It’s always helpful when you know you’ve got a government in your corner supporting that effort as opposed to one that’s introduced or raised 23 new taxes that keeps layering on new costs, new uncertainty, new regulations, and they’re going in the wrong direction, frankly…
“The big key differential between Kevin Falcon and John Horgan, or (David) Eby, or (Mike) Farnworth, or any of those people is, I’ve got the private sector background to understand how to manage and run big organizations.
“And they’re good people too, I should say this: I like some of them too, to be honest with you. And I think they’re well-intentioned. But they just have not got the experience in the background to understand how to run and manage large organizations and I think the incompetence flows through and you could see it impacting capital projects that are way behind schedule and way over budget, you can see it in their vaccine roll-out, you can see it on how they’re trying to deal with small business grants, they just haven’t got a clue on how to do these things. And I think we need confidence and leadership back and government.”
Interesting answers worth saving for the future, if only to compare leadership candidate Kevin Falcon’s ideas for change to the ones he actually implements should he win the race.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.
- John Horgan’s brusque dismissal of Alaska’s cruise industry proposal has come back to haunt him, his government, and BC’s bedraggled tourism sector. But as Rob Shaw notes, it’s still not clear the Premier realizes he’s in deep water.
- Katy Merrifield has been interviewing BC Liberal leadership contenders as they announce their candidacy – and started with the first person out of the gate, Skeena’s Ellis Ross.
- The second declared candidate, Gavin Dew, contributed an op-ed saying that what happens in BC’s business capital often spreads elsewhere – and it’s time to fix Vancouver’s political mess.