B.C. Liberal leadership front-runner Kevin Falcon would remake party, starting with the name

Kevin Falcon

GARY MASON, THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Perhaps it says everything about the state of the once-powerful BC Liberals that their presumptive new leader has announced his presence with a pledge to change the party’s name.

Kevin Falcon, the former finance minister under Christy Clark and who also held transportation and health portfolios under Gordon Campbell, is now officially in the party’s leadership race. At this point, with no serious rivals, the job is his to lose.

And unless some star candidate emerges from the wings, I don’t see that happening.

Mr. Falcon has been plotting his move for some time. He is well organized and well financed. He has surrounded himself with some top political strategists. Winning the leadership early next year should be a relative walk in the park compared with everything that comes after.

The idea of changing the party’s name has been around for years. The rationale is that the word Liberal has always alienated the conservative flank of what is a coalition party. Other parties in the country have done something similar with remarkable success. The Progressive Conservatives in Saskatchewan rebranded under the Saskatchewan Party. Jason Kenney orchestrated a successful merger of the PC and the Wildrose parties under the United Conservative Party banner.

Changing the name of the Liberals to something more all-embracing – the B.C. Party, for example – has merit. It wipes the slate clean and gives the new entity a chance to be anything it wants. It might also help Mr. Falcon unload his greatest burden – the political baggage he carries.

And there is certainly lots of it.

He was responsible for putting tolls on the Port Mann bridge and fronted a campaign to salvage the much-loathed Harmonized Sales Tax. The NDP will try and portray him as Gordon Campbell incarnate, with all the memories of public-sector upheaval that name still elicits in many quarters.

The NDP is likely salivating at the prospect of facing off against Mr. Falcon down the road. To many New Democrats, he epitomizes the arrogance that became a Liberal trademark and which led to the party’s eventual downfall. People such as Premier John Horgan can likely still see, in his mind’s eye, Mr. Falcon smirking on the government side of the House, while Mr. Campbell or Ms. Clark after him, denounced the “socialist NDP.” They also railed against the “lost decade” of the 1990s when the New Democrats governed the province before being cast to the political wilderness for 16 long years.

It wasn’t minutes after Mr. Falcon announced his bid for the leadership that the NDP released a photo of him with Maxime Bernier that was taken when the now-head of the People’s Party of Canada was seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. Still, any happy-looking picture with a climate-denying, nativist like Mr. Bernier is not helpful.

Mr. Falcon’s biggest challenge, however, will be coming up with a policy platform that makes both main camps of his party – whatever its future name – happy. The Liberals’ rural, conservative base has always wielded outsized power. Pandering to their sensibilities ultimately cost the Liberals urban support under Ms. Clark. The fact is, vote-rich Metro Vancouver is where any political party in B.C. has to focus its energy and policy attention.

Residents of the region are more progressive minded than their cousins in the Interior and the north. (Vancouver Island remains an NDP stronghold and nothing suggests that is about to change). One of the big issues Mr. Falcon will have to confront if he is successful in winning the leadership is the environment.

Ms. Clark took a status-quo approach to climate change, mostly in deference to the party’s conservative wing. That approach won’t cut it in 2021 and beyond. The world is coming to terms with our climate crisis and unless the next Liberal leader takes it seriously, the party has no hope of forming government.

But that’s just one tough issue. There are plenty of others.

Mr. Falcon has been out of the political game for eight years. A lot has changed in the interim. The NDP occupies the government benches now, and the party has become a dominant political force. Just like the Liberals did for 16 years, the New Democrats hold many advantages by virtue of the power position they enjoy.

All that said, Mr. Falcon would represent a serious test for the New Democrats. He’s smart, tenacious, well connected. He also has plenty of runway before the next election – time, in fact, to form a whole new party.