Vaughn Palmer: It will be tough for Falcon to get a consensus on renaming B.C. Liberals

Kevin Falcon

Opinion: Renaming proposals have gone nowhere in the past, but ‘Liberal’ remains anathema for many on the right


VICTORIA — Former cabinet minister Kevin Falcon launched his bid for the B.C. Liberal leadership this week by pledging to put the party through the name change game for the third time.

“I believe our renewal demands a new party name,” declared Falcon in a speech broadcast on his Facebook page Monday evening. The new name “will be decided upon in consultation with our membership,” he added.

Falcon says he’s spoken with “hundreds” of party members and found them receptive to having a provincial party “with no association by name” to any federal party. The change would proceed “if members are supportive and I think they will be,” the would-be party leader told Mike Smyth during on radio station CKNW Tuesday.

The Liberals first took up the notion of changing their name following the 1996 provincial election, where they finished first in the popular vote but lost the seat count to the New Democrats, in part because of a split on the centre-right with the B.C. Reform party.

Then Liberal leader Gordon Campbell held talks with Reform with a view to combining forces to defeat the New Democrats in the next election.

Though the Liberals held 33 seats to Reform’s two, Reform leader Jack Weisgerber balked at combining under at the Liberal name. “I just don’t see the coordinated forces under the Liberal banner,” he said. “The name of the organization has to be more embracing … something other than the B.C. Liberal party.”

Weisgerber was a cabinet minister in the B.C. Social Credit government of the 1980s. His reservations about the Liberal name would be voiced again and again over the ensuing years by other ex-Socreds, Reformers and supporters of the federal Conservatives — never mind that the B.C. Liberal party is organizationally separate from the Liberal Party of Canada.

Campbell, evidencing no strong commitment to any federal party, initially said he was open to the idea of a name change. But that provoked a backlash from long-standing provincial Liberals. They felt the party had already made too many concessions to attract support from former Socreds, Reformers and federal Tories without also giving up a name that had fielded candidates in most B.C. elections in the previous 100 years.

Fearing a split, the Liberal party’s governing council shelved a move to appoint a full-blown “task force” on changing the name. Instead, the council adopted a tame directive to “riding presidents to canvass residents in their constituencies to determine concrete action to unite all socially and fiscally responsible British Columbians in free enterprise opposition to the NDP, to win the next election and to govern B.C. better.”

It was the last anyone heard about changing the Liberal name in that electoral cycle.

Campbell led the party into the 2001 provincial election, winning 77 of 79 seats and pretty much settling the question of whether the Liberals could unite the anti-NDP vote in the province.

The doubts revived were a decade later after Campbell resigned. In the subsequent leadership campaign, Christy Clark, whose roots were in the federal Liberal party, narrowly defeated Kevin Falcon, an unabashed supporter of the federal Conservatives. The Falcon team played hardball during the campaign, raising the spectre that a Clark win would split the party along Liberal-Conservative lines. Afterwards, Clark appointed Falcon deputy premier and minister of finance and the two camps put on a show of unity.

But when the Liberals lost two formerly safe seats to the New Democrats in byelections in the spring of 2012, Clark herself put rebranding on the agenda: “I’m not opposed to changing the name. We are a coalition party.”

The party appointed a group headed by former cabinet minister Colin Hansen. It confirmed that “many federal Conservative and former Social Credit and B.C. Reform supporters could not bring themselves to become members of a political party with the term ‘Liberal’ in its name.  … Similar resistance was found on the doorsteps as voters would say they could not vote B.C. Liberal and then make reference to some issue regarding the federal political scene.”

Still, the committee, which reported in 2012, recommended against attempting a name change on grounds that there was simply not enough time to complete the rebranding before the provincial election scheduled for the following spring.

At the time, New Democrats joked about the Liberals putting themselves into witness protection or trying to skip town before the electoral equivalent of a collection agency. The Liberals had the last laugh when Clark led them to a surprise victory in the May 2013 provincial election. Turned out the old brand was still a winning one.

Now, with the Liberals having lost the popular vote for the first time in 25 years (and finished second in the seat count for only the second time in 25 years), the notion of changing the party name is back on the agenda, put there by a leadership candidate whose history is with the  federal Conservative.

Falcon promotes the change partly as a matter of renewal, partly to cut the ties with the baggage of the past, in much the same way that the B.C. Liberals superseded Social Credit as the vehicle of choice for centre-right voters in the 1990s.

But despite Falcon’s confidence that the membership is with him on this one, party history suggests it will be tough to reach consensus on a replacement for the name that sticks in right-of-centre throats.