Ask any new leader of a political party their plans, and the answer is usually some variant of “refresh, rebuild, renew, restore.” Sometimes, as with new BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon, you can add “rebrand,” but that’s another column.
Those may seem like stock answers, but they’re almost always accurate ones. After all, parties that don’t need refreshing conduct fewer leadership races. But renewal – or refreshment or restoration – doesn’t happen overnight, or even in a matter of weeks. They’re longer-term goals. In the meantime, new party leaders have more immediate tasks. Here’s what Kevin Falcon’s first few items to tackle might be.
A team of rivals
The thing with a leadership race is, well…it’s a race. One contested against fierce and determined rivals, all of whom just sunk a lot of time, energy, and money into convincing new and existing members they’re the best choice to lead the party…and, even if just indirectly, that you aren’t.
What’s more, the 2021/22 BC Liberal leadership race was different than most, in that it was about twice as long – which is more than enough time for tension to boil over.
In many respects, elections are easier; your opponents will always be your opponents. They will never have to share a caucus room or take direction from you. Win a party leadership contest, and one of three things happen with your rivals. They either become loyal lieutenants, drop out completely, or remain your rival.
Three of Falcon’s fellow candidates are sitting MLAs: Ellis Ross, Michael Lee, and Renee Merrifield. We’ll get to them in a moment, if only because this column flows better that way.
That leaves Stan Sipos, Gavin Dew, and Val Litwin. Sipos entered late and finished a distant seventh, but was gracious in defeat. Something of a wild card, I have no idea what he wants, if anything, but at the very least he doesn’t appear to be an embittered foe, and with just 1% of the vote, has not carved out much of a following in the party.
Despite disappointing results, Gavin Dew ran an innovative campaign, and in many ways has become one of the BC Liberals’ foremost younger voices. If Falcon is smart, he’ll find a way to bring on Dew in some capacity, either as a candidate in a winnable riding, or in the party office. Dew’s expertise on the child care file (he and his wife operated a childcare facility) could come in especially handy as the party looks to rebuild in the suburbs.
Litwin is a thornier problem. Bright, smooth, and telegenic, Litwin performed very well in the party’s debates, and projected to be a significant asset moving forward. But in the campaign’s final days, something boiled over, Litwin threatened to leave the party if Falcon won, and was pointedly the only leadership candidate who didn’t join him on stage.
Litwin finished a fairly distant fourth, but this is best judged on a sliding scale. A complete novice in politics, he still outpaced an experienced and innovative campaigner in Dew, and a sitting MLA with a strong regional power base. Anecdotally, a surprising number of prominent BC Liberals have shared they intended to rank him higher, but for his threats to leave.
On Monday, Falcon hinted he’d be open to rapprochement with Litwin, and that he understood only too well that losing a leadership campaign sucks and stings. If he can bring Litwin back on board, this could be a quietly significant accomplishment.
That brings us back to the MLAs.
General, meet your troops
Less than 24 hours after popping champagne, Falcon jumped on a ferry for Victoria, where on Monday he met with his new caucus and staff. And by the time he spoke to the media, he had already sorted out and announced how he will reorganize critic roles.
First and foremost, Falcon found important, visible roles for his fellow leadership candidates, moving Ross, Lee, and Merrifield back into prominent critic roles. This should go a long way to healing any wounds they may have incurred during the campaign.
Falcon also made the wise choice of keeping Shirley Bond as Leader of the Opposition. (In a quirk of our system, you must be a sitting MLA to have this title, but not necessarily to be Premier.) Bond’s steady hand at the wheel and overall performance as Interim Leader has earned almost universal respect, including from the other two parties.
Until Falcon wins a seat of his own (more on this below) and assumes this new title, keeping Bond there made sense.
My kingdom for a seat
Whenever a non-MLA becomes leader of a political party, arguably the most important task is finding a seat in the legislature. Until he or she wins a byelection, this is usually an awkward and risky time.
This was checked off the list when former leader Andrew Wilkinson announced on Monday he’d be resigning as MLA for Vancouver-Quilchena.
Falcon couldn’t have asked for this to have gone better. First, he’s spared the awkward conversation of telling one of his caucus they need to take one for the team and step down.
Sometimes this goes well; sometimes it doesn’t. And if the target MLA refuses – not even a party leader can force an elected member to resign – the result is yet another awkward situation, where the new leader’s first big ask is refused by one of their own team.
That’s the awkward part. The byelection itself is the risky part. If you lose, there’s no contingency plan; from here, there be dragons. Other parties will throw the kitchen sink at any new leader in a byelection, hoping to squash them out of the gate; Falcon has been a favourite target of NDP attacks for well over a year already.
In Vancouver-Quilchena, Falcon would inherit not only one of the safest BC Liberal seats in the legislature, but a secure Lower Mainland foothold in a crucial, vote-rich region where the BC Liberals have been comprehensively outflanked. To rebuild the party where it most needs rebuilding, its leader must be as visible as possible.
Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca