Former cabinet minister faces pointed questions during Liberal leadership debate

VICTORIA — The first debate in British Columbia's Liberal leadership race saw candidates take aim at a former cabinet minister who left politics a decade ago, but now is seeking the party's top job.

Kevin Falcon, a former minister of finance, health and transportation in the Liberal governments of premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark, faced repeated questions Tuesday about his reasons for seeking the leadership after leaving politics in 2012.

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"Kevin, look, you have done a great service to this province in your participation as a minister in so many important and valuable and impactful B.C. Liberal governments in the past, but it's been 10 years," said candidate Michael Lee, a Vancouver member of the legislature.

Lee, who previously ran for the Liberal leadership but was defeated by former Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, questioned Falcon's commitment to the campaign, saying the former minister has continued to work for his Vancouver property development company.

"You are doing this arguably on the side of your desk," said Lee. "Will you run in the next provincial election and support and be part of this team?"

Falcon, who ran for party leader in 2011 but was defeated by Christy Clark, said he decided to leave politics in 2012 because he had a young family and wanted to pursue private business opportunities.

He said he has a reputation of getting things done in public and private life and his commitment to the Liberals is unwavering.

"Frankly, I don't know that we need professional politicians," said Falcon. "This party requires, in spite of its great history, it requires a reboot and a rebuild and a potential rebranding."

Falcon and Lee and four other candidates are seeking the party leadership.

Also in the race are: Vancouver entrepreneur Gavin Dew, former chamber of commerce executive Val Litwin, Kelowna MLA Renee Merrifield and Skeena MLA Ellis Ross.

The Liberal members will elect a new leader Feb. 5 to replace Wilkinson and interim leader Shirley Bond.

The 90-minute debate was streamed on the Liberal party's website and Facebook page.

Merrifield and Ross, both members of the current Liberal Opposition caucus, continued to press Falcon on his reasons for entering the leadership race.

"If B.C.'s future is so important to you, why weren't you on the ballot with the rest of us in 2017 or even 2020?" said Ross about the consecutive Liberal defeats.

"Will you run if you don't win the leadership race?" asked Merrifield.

Falcon said he was running for leader of the party and premier of the province.

The candidates also put forward visions for the party's future, focusing on rebuilding public trust, solving the province's housing affordability situation and ensuring child-care does not become tangled in bureaucracy under the New Democrat government.

"Bragging about the bridges we built in the past won't attract new voters," said Lee.

Ross, a former chief of Kitimat's Haisla Nation, said his daughter voted for him in the 2020 election, but she told him she didn't support the B.C. Liberals as a whole.

Prior to the debate, Stewart Prest, a lecturer at Simon Fraser University's political science department, said the candidates could strongly signal the future direction of the party, which lost power in 2017 after four consecutive governments.

"The terrain has changed somewhat, and the party seems to be trying to figure out what is going to be that dominant story that stitches the party back together when it is being pulled in different directions," he said.

Prest said he will be looking for signs from the candidates indicating where they want to take the party, which could range from renaming to renewing and refocusing the Liberals.

The Liberals lost 13 seats in the October 2020 election that saw Premier John Horgan's New Democrats re-elected with a majority, winning 58 seats to 28 for the Liberals and two Greens.

Wilkinson resigned shortly after the election.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Mary Polak said the debate will allow party members to consider the approaches the candidates have to guide the Liberals in Opposition while building a solid program to win elections.

"The party membership is ready to support someone who can show them a credible plan," said Polak, who was defeated in her Langley riding last October.

A post-mortem of the election released publicly by the Liberals last June said the October 2020 election defeat was a result of factors that included an unenthusiastic platform, an uncomfortable leader and widespread perception within the party that the campaign was headed for defeat.

The report said the Liberals must embark on a rebranding that supports the values and aspirations of voters.

"The party is perceived by many as lacking diversity, fairly or unfairly," said the report. "The B.C. Liberals need to recruit, listen to and elevate British Columbians of every gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity and economic background. The province has changed and so should the B.C. Liberals."

Prest said he will look for how far a candidate says they are prepared to push for broad change within the party.

"It will be interesting to watch during the debate, as one of our first chances to see if there is a candidate willing to give voice to that kind of approach," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2021.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version attributed a quote about how the B.C. Liberal party hasn't attracted new voters to Ellis Ross. It was in fact spoken by Michael Lee. The story also incorrectly quoted Ross as saying his daughter did not vote for the Liberals in the last provincial election. In fact, Ross said his daughter voted for him, but she did not support the party as a whole.

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