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Nine months of slings and arrows

Rob Shaw: After an impressive launch, Kevin Falcon enters the BC Liberal leadership race as the odds-on favourite – which paints a target on his back.

Former finance minister Kevin Falcon pulled off a slick and impressive leadership launch Monday night, hitting on some major issues plaguing the party and promising a total rebuild of the BC Liberal name and brand.

He’ll earn accolades for bursting out the door as the clear front-runner with a well-funded professional campaign. And he should enjoy those accolades while they last. Because with nine months to go in the race, and a giant target on his back, every day from this point on is going to be spent fending off attacks in a relentless slog.

First, the good news.

Falcon hit straight-on two of the largest issues facing the BC Liberal Party in the wake of its disastrous showing in October’s provincial election: A stale brand that is more of a liability than an asset, and the stench that still clings to the party following previous leader Andrew Wilkinson’s hesitancy to eject intolerant members.

“As we chart a course for the future, we must be honest in our assessment of what ails us, our party, the BC Liberal Party, we've lost our way,” Falcon said in his speech.

“Recent elections bear that out. We've lost voters from the center to the NDP, and voters from the right have sat at home. If we want to be relevant, we need to course correct and do so fast.”

He proposed a “root-to-branch rebuild” that would include changing the party’s name. To what? Well, that’s not clear. To be decided later by members, he said.

It’s not the first time the party has considered a name change. It came up after the 2013 election, but was largely brushed aside as a waste of time.

Now, however, would be a good time for a rethink. Because Falcon has a point. The B.C. NDP has so effectively prosecuted the BC Liberals in the court of public opinion during the past two elections that, accurately or not, for too many voters, the name is practically a synonym for corruption - especially in the Lower Mainland.

On key files for Metro Vancouver - housing affordability, child care and climate change - credibility is shot. The party could do worse than a rebrand.

The most effective part of Falcon’s speech Monday was his promise to open the party to “all races, sexualities, genders (and) socio-economic backgrounds” while putting extreme right-wing members on notice: bigotry would not be tolerated.

“A party with a diversity of backgrounds is a better and stronger party, and there will be zero room for intolerance under a Kevin Falcon leadership,” he said.

A video package outlining Falcon’s family and reasons for re-entering politics also contained a shot of him walking over a rainbow crosswalk. It’s embarrassing that in 2021 the party has to show simple acts like this - but again, it has a long way to go to make amends, and attract younger and more diverse members.

Now, the reality check.

Falcon’s return to political life after a decade of retirement appeared to go so well, that it widened the already-large target on his back.

Every single BC Liberal leadership candidate - and there could be as many as six others - will spend the bulk of their time criticizing him to try and weaken the heir apparent.

Not only that, the B.C. NDP, which has been taking shots at Falcon for months when his campaign was but a rumour, ratcheted up their criticism Monday.

The party produced a two-page backgrounder that tied Falcon to previous government decisions on bridge tolls, MSP increases, and ICBC rate hikes, and associating him with unsavoury People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier.

The B.C. NDP partisan attack machine is an impressive spectacle these days, honed to a sharp point through the past two elections. Only a fool would underestimate the damage these attacks could do, if left unchecked.

The NDP plans to paint Falcon as a rich out-of-touch property developer who spent time in a corrupt government selling favours to donors and helping the “wealthiest one per cent” get wealthier while the rest of the province suffered.

On the flip side, the NDP’s preoccupation with Falcon gives him a foe with whom to grapple. Rather than punching down by arguing with other BC Liberal leadership candidates seeking to catch up to him, Falcon can choose to spar with the NDP government directly to show his chops as presumptive Opposition leader in waiting.

Falcon will have to contend with all this for nine long months until the February 5 leadership convention.

That’s a lifetime in B.C. politics.

Toss in the COVID-19 pandemic, and people’s preoccupation with vaccines, and he could have a hard time picking up momentum or donations while out stumping for party votes.

All of which is to say, Kevin Falcon’s campaign launched very well. But every day from here on is harder.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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