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Kirk LaPointe: Challenge of mending party rifts among tasks facing new BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon

Keeping party together will be a challenge for former deputy premier after controversial campaign.

For its leader to take the party into the 2024 election and presumably beyond, the B.C. Liberals have decided on a candidate who promises renewal for the future and offers renewal of its powerhouse past.

Kevin Falcon arrived at Vancouver’s Wall Centre in a chauffeured limousine Saturday, a sign of confidence that never publicly waned in the campaign. He was the first to declare 10 months ago as a candidate to succeed Andrew Wilkinson, effective in garnering a majority of the party’s caucus as supporters and organizers, a magnet for financing and organizational experience, and he was never anything but the front-runner in the race of seven.

What the party gets is an effusive, high-octane, retail politician, pretty much able to enter any room and start a conversation. It also gets a very different persona than it has just experienced and a very similar persona to the fellow in power today.

The campaign he won Saturday was hardly teeming with ideas. Falcon’s main selling point was that he has been a winner and can be one again. No one else in the race had that pedigree.

“We were leaders when we were in government,” he said in an acceptance speech following a fifth-ballot victory. “We will be leaders again.”

Falcon served as an MLA for a dozen years, contesting the 2011 leadership that Christy Clark secured and becoming the province’s finance minister and deputy premier before departing the scene in 2012 with a young family to build a different network in the development business as an executive.

On the presumption he will capture a legislative seat in a byelection before long, he will be a daunting cross-aisle handful for the premier and his ministers. But he will also have to defend BC Liberal baggage, even though he hasn’t been in politics for nearly a decade and the party hasn’t been in power for half of that.

Perhaps it is hubris, perhaps they don’t count on his evolution and can only remember the decade-ago Falcon, but the B.C. NDP profess no fear of him.

Falcon’s first forays are fence-mending. He endured late-contest accusations from all six of his rivals of campaign irregularities in how Falcon’s team recruited members, and the experience has left a more-sour-than-typical taste from the contest that his rivals privately say will be more-slippery-than-typical to patch. A BC Supreme Court judge even had to rule Saturday on a legal challenge to the vote from a party member.

Even if proof never surfaced publicly of wrongdoing, neither of these episodes are a good look for the new leader or the party, particularly in an era Falcon noted in his speech Saturday in which trust in politicians “has never been lower.”

It is still possible that some of the candidates will leave the party for more conservative climes or choose to reinvent off the political stage, and there is every indication of a resolve to revive the B.C. Conservative Party, so Falcon will have to succeed in keeping the B.C. Liberal coalition intact if it has hope in 2024. He has to pay special attention to MLA Ellis Ross, whose stock rose significantly in the race. One thing that will almost assuredly go is the party name, because it no longer fits who it represents.

It is an axiom of preferential ballots that a first-ballot lead can wilt as candidates drop off ballot by ballot and a voter’s second choice shifts to anyone but the front-runner. But Falcon had a significant first-ballot lead – 47 per cent of the 8,700 points, more than 20 percentage points ahead of MLA Ellis Ross – and while it took five ballots to push him to a majority, his lead was never seriously challenged as the results emerged ballot after ballot. He wound up securing 52.19 per cent on the fifth and final tally, hardly overwhelming (Wilkinson actually did better) and indicative of the challenge ahead.

In his first few sentences onstage at the Wall Centre, he promised to restore a “private-sector-driven economy” to deliver the needed public-sector social programs. He said the NDP “don’t know how to get big things done,” so the “big ideas” he said have never been needed more are presumably forthcoming from him.

The good news for Falcon is that there is time for his rivals to repay their campaign debts, time for his party to build a war chest, and time for it to attract around 60 candidates aiming to add to the seat total for the next election.

He has to hope, too, that it is someone other than Horgan he faces. He would know that the premier has developed into a formidable foe. Of course, he has to first ensure his own party isn’t one.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.