Seven months into the job as BC Liberal leader, Kevin Falcon will face the next big test of his ability to lead the party towards renewal and relevancy as candidates face off in the much-anticipated South Surrey byelection in September.
In the midst of escalating health care and affordability crises in B.C., the upcoming byelection also offers Falcon an opportunity to put the NDP on the defensive. A job some would say Falcon began in the spring shortly after his own election as MLA for Vancouver-Quilchena, which culminated in arguably the worst legislative session logged by the NDP government so far.
“There is a desire like I’ve never seen before for candour, for competence, and for leadership,” he said in his acceptance speech on February 5.
The prospect of the BC Liberals winning the next election – a near-impossibility when Premier John Horgan was at his popularity peak in 2020 – has gained ground with Horgan’s announcement he will step down as leader this fall following an NDP leadership race to elect his replacement.
As well, the NDP government is facing a series of no-win political challenges, including sky high housing prices, a health care system strained to historic levels, fatal drug overdoses showing no sign of abating, and reports of increasing violent crime across the province.
Falcon lays the blame at the NDP’s feet.
“The reason why we’re having so many challenges today with crime, with health care, with housing is we have a group of people in Victoria – all very well-meaning people – but they haven’t got a clue what they’re doing,” says Falcon.
Politics a “team sport”
Meanwhile, BC Liberal disunity issues have been brewing. Falcon fired long-time northern MLA John Rustad after the latter amplified climate change denial and misinformation in social media posts, then reportedly refused to back down or speak with the leader. This wasn’t the first run-in Falcon had had with Rustad, but it was the proverbial straw that broke trust between the two.
“Politics is a team sport,” Falcon wrote in his official firing letter. Rustad had demonstrated “a pattern of behaviour that was not supportive of our caucus team and the principles of mutual respect and trust.”
Add to that, recent jockeying for BC Liberal voters by the provincial Conservative Party and Falcon has had his hands full during his first few months on the job.
Whatever grumblings there may be among the party’s right-leaning members, Todd Stone, MLA for Kamloops-South Thompson and Opposition house leader, says there is no question the Liberals are unified and excited under Falcon.
One of Falcon’s earliest backers in the leadership race, Stone says that Falcon is living up to his promise of renewal, and says BC Liberals are now walking with “a bounce in their step” under Falcon’s leadership.
Despite polls showing the BC NDP retain a substantial lead over the Liberals, Stone is quick to dismiss them as non-representative of a future election.
“The BC Liberal Party is back, we’re back in the game and it’s going to be a tight, tough, typical BC election,” says Stone. “There’s a widespread feel in the party now that under Kevin’s leadership, we’ve got a real shot at winning the next election.”
At-least one of Falcon’s usual detractors agrees.
Martyn Brown was chief of staff for former BC Liberal premier Gordon Campbell. Falcon served in Gordon Campbell’s cabinet from 2001 to 2011.
“A natural leader, not so much. But always someone who was unflinching in expressing his unvarnished opinions in cabinet,” Brown recalled of Falcon in an email. “A quick study, a minister ever-bent on leading to drive results, and less doctrinaire than pragmatic and populist, in my experience.”
Brown agrees with Stone that Falcon has restored some swagger within the BC Liberal ranks and the party stands a good chance of winning the next general election, pointing to Falcon’s performance as an NDP critic in the legislature before the spring session ended.
“He has so far done a pretty good job of redefining himself as Falcon 2.0,” says Brown. “If you look at who his leadership campaign attracted and the breadth of his support — regionally, generationally and culturally — his leadership does seem to be broadly resonating at least with conservatives.”
One common source of the NDP’s rhetorical attacks on Falcon stem from his lengthy past as a cabinet minister under Campbell and his successor Christy Clark, but Brown believes it is less of a detriment than portrayed in the media.
In stark contrast to Falcon’s past as a tough-talker on the BC Liberals’ right-wing, Falcon has worked hard to present a new image of a changed, socially progressive and stylishly-dressed politician with little time for political labels.
Falcon promised diversity
One of the more frequent criticisms of the party is the lack of diversity in its largely middle-aged, straight white male caucus. Overseeing a diversification of the Liberal caucus was a promise Falcon, 59, repeated multiple times in the leadership race, extending not only to ethnic and cultural diversity, but also to diversity of backgrounds, age, opinion and experience.
Gavin Dew, Falcon’s former rival in the party’s leadership race, also promised diversity and inclusion as part of his leadership bid. Dew has since pledged to run as a Liberal candidate in the next election under Falcon.
Dew says the diversity of the Liberal caucus shrank with the reduction of MLAs in the legislature following the last election.
“The simple answer is that we didn’t run younger and more diverse candidates in ridings they could win,” says 38 year-old Dew. “That became a feedback loop in which we continued to lose relevance with the next generation and with all of B.C.’s diverse communities.”
Dew believes that will change, but it will be through competent and qualified candidates that win the next election. “There is no appetite for quotas in our party, but importantly there should be no need,” says Dew. “B.C. is full of insanely qualified people of all ages and backgrounds who would make exceptional MLAs.”
Falcon hand-picked Surrey South byelection candidate, Elenore Sturko. A sergeant on leave from the RCMP, Sturko served in several locations, most recently as a RCMP spokesperson for the Surrey detachment. She regularly made the local news while announcing various arrests, or telling her story about serving as a police officer from the LGBTQ community.
“An outstanding individual, she and her partner live in South Surrey in a townhome with her three kids,” says Falcon. “And she’s exactly the kind of diverse, on the ground, smart, very effective candidate that I’m really proud to have recruited.”
While Sturko certainly matches Falcon’s vision for diverse candidates as part of his renewal platform, how she performs in the byelection will test the optimistic words spoken by Liberal MLA Stone about the party’s reinvigoration.
The NDP have never won in Surrey South, but came close in the 2020 election. A Liberal loss in the byelection will be a severe political setback for Falcon and his promise of renewal.
NDP has its own renewal pains
Both the Liberals and NDP will have undergone a renewal of sorts when MLAs return to the Legislature in the fall.
David Eby, the high-profile NDP minister of housing and attorney general, stepped aside from his cabinet duties to run for NDP leader. If Eby wins, he’ll inherit Horgan’s popular government, but will be hard-pressed to maintain the current premier’s personal popularity.
Eby will also be saddled with solving challenges like growing health care shortages and unaffordable housing prices, amid historic inflation.
“Politically, he’s (Eby) a proven killer — a deadly accurate sharp-shooter who is more adept at targeting Falcon’s party than any NDP leader since Glen Clark,” says Brown. “Though odds are, Eby will still be on the defensive on most issues facing B.C. whenever he calls the next election.”
Brown, however, says Eby would be more than a match for Falcon.
“I expect he will attack them with a populist vengeance that will ensure he’s not easily outflanked by Falcon on issues like affordability, housing and crime,” says Brown “And health care is hardly Falcon’s strong suit, given his personal past role in creating the mess that it now is.”
Former Health minister critiques health care
Critics remember budget cuts Falcon oversaw as health minister from 2009-2010 in Campbell’s government. His endorsement in 2011 of the federal Conservative government’s plan to tie health care transfers to GDP instead of a flat six per cent rate of increase did him no favours either.
For his part, Falcon has not shied away from criticizing the current NDP government for deficiencies in the health care system. During a recent tour in the North and Interior, Falcon said health care concerns were the most common complaints expressed by doctors and other residents.
Northern doctors are leaving smaller communities like Quesnel in droves, he said, citing a proliferation of paperwork and increased costs under the NDP, along with an economic business model that has not changed in over a decade.
“This is something that again, requires leadership from government and we’re just seeing a decided lack of it,” he said.
If elected leader, Falcon told Northern Beat he will lead a “Yes-In-My-Backyard,” or YIMBY, government that focuses on boosting the supply side of housing in order to flood the market with new developments and lower costs, among other policies.
After Falcon’s break from provincial politics in 2013, he built a career in real estate. Since being elected leader, he has leaned heavily on his private sector years to present himself as a man who understands the housing market and can help solve B.C.’s record-breaking affordability crisis.
“I can’t pretend I can solve everything in four short-years, but I can make a huge amount of change, especially with helping first-time buyers get into the housing market,” says Falcon.
He says he will work with municipalities to incent new development and impose punitive actions on those who stall it. He says he will also review the “blizzard” of taxes imposed by the NDP on housing and strip the costs getting in the way of first-time buyers.
“I’m going to be focused like a laser beam,” says Falcon. “I’m less concerned about people already in the market, more concerned about people that feel shut out and look at the highest housing prices in North America and say we’re never going to get into the market.”
Falcon skeptical on election timing
David Eby has pledged that if he becomes NDP leader (and thus, premier), there will be no early election. Falcon, however, is skeptical of Eby’s promise. Falcon also admits the BC Liberals would not have 87 candidates ready to fight a snap election in every riding if one was called before 2023.
“Not if it drops this fall. Now, I’m just being honest about that because I don’t think that even David Eby and the NDP would be so cynical as to call an election this early in their second mandate,” says Falcon, noting B.C.’s fixed elections laws.
In 2020, however, Premier Horgan ripped up his government’s four-year confidence and supply agreement with the BC Greens in order to call and win the 2020 snap election.
Falcon believes Eby will not hesitate to call an early election after the fall, a point at which he says the Liberals will have a full slate of candidates ready to contest all 87 ridings in B.C.
“I wouldn’t trust him for a minute, I don’t care what he says,” says Falcon. “I think that he would call an election if he thought it benefited him by spring of next year.
“We will be ready.”
This article was corrected Aug. 27 to indicate Elenore Sturko is a RCMP sergeant on leave.