Martyn Brown: A smarter strategy for changing the B.C. Liberal name, dumb as that enterprise is for Kevin Falcon

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      At 2:30 p.m. tomorrow (June 11) in Penticton the B.C. Liberal faithful will be debating and voting at the party’s annual convention on Kevin Falcon’s leadership pledge to formally deLiberalize his party by rebranding it as something less objectionable to diehard federal Conservatives.

      Last fall I wrote a long piece in the Straight about how dumb I thought that idea is. Especially for Kevin Falcon, whose best asset for winning more votes in the seat-rich urban areas is actually the B.C. Liberal name and whose worst liability is his reputation as a too-far-right conservative.

      Given how central Falcon’s proposed party name change was to his leadership campaign, I’d be shocked if it wasn’t heartily endorsed by the party delegates, many of whom are also his fans—including more than a handful who have been won over by his politically impressive performance to date as Official Opposition leader.

      He has certainly re-energized his long-deflated crew and given the B.C. Liberals new cause for hope, aided by the unbelievably target-rich environment that the NDP has provided.

      For the first time since coming to power in 2017, the NDP now finds itself on the defensive and reeling from a growing list of public policy failures, broken promises, and unforced errors.

      Primary and emergency health care is in an unprecedented dire crisis. Housing’s a mess. Violent crime is running amok. COVID and opioid-related deaths are continuing to spiral out of control. And schools, hospitals, and other crucially stressed public infrastructure are suffering from capital funding diverted to Horgan’s $1-billion Royal BC Museum vanity project.

      Any one of those issues would typically be sufficient to lay any government low, to say nothing of the inflation-related challenges that are making political mincemeat of the NDP’s 2020 election “affordability agenda", turning it into a cruel joke.

      If and when its resiliently popular leader retires, as many expect Horgan will, the NDP will be in even deeper trouble. Most of his likely successors are already positioned as fish in the barrel for a seasoned and deadly accurate political marksman like Falcon.

      If nothing else, a B.C. Liberal brand bait-and-switch project would threaten to distract from Falcon’s momentum, divisive and misguided as it would be for a party that has so much more to lose than it has to gain in the short run from that exercise.

      But leave that aside for the moment, along with the many other reasons I previously articulated as to why a party name change aimed at courting more conservatives is politically misguided, ideologically bankrupt, and cynical as all get out.

      Someone should actually read the Election Act.  It raises other real and serious concerns.

      For one thing, it says this under section 160 that deals with changes in a political party name or form of identification:

      “(1) As a limit on the authority of a registered political party to change a form of identification … the political party may make the change but only after receiving the approval of the chief electoral officer.

      (2) For the purposes of subsection (1), the political party must apply to the chief electoral officer as provided in section 159 (2) and sections 156 and 158 apply.”

      Why is that important?

      Because section 156 specifies that “A political party must not be registered if, in the opinion of the chief electoral officer, any of the forms of identification … is likely to be confused with such a form of identification for another political party

      (a) that is currently registered,

      (b) that has an earlier application for registration pending before the chief electoral officer, or

      (c) that was registered at any time during the previous 10 years.”

      And further, that despite those caveats, “the chief electoral officer may register a political party in a circumstance where any of the forms of identification referred to in section 155 (3) (c) are the same or similar to such forms of identification for another political party if both of the following apply:

      (a) the other political party has been deregistered for at least the previous 4 years;

      (b) the name of the other political party has not appeared on a ballot paper at any time in the past 10 years.”

      That’s important for two reasons.

      One, because it means the B.C. Liberals couldn’t rename their party as the BC Party or any same or similar party name that hasn’t been deregistered for at least the previous four years and that has been used in the past 10 years. Here’s that list, along with the list of currently registered parties.

      And two—most importantly to any true liberal member or supporter—because that also means that the Liberal name would effectively be dead for at least another 10 years. It wouldn’t allowed to be registered in any new form.

      Anyone who thinks that name and its ideology was or is really important would be shit out of luck.

      Chief Electoral Officer Anton Boegman might be called upon to make some difficult decisions in the wake of any name change by the B.C. Liberals.

      Public subsidies could become an issue

      The Conservative party label would continue to be available for fielding candidates—but not the Liberal label. Not for at least 10 long years, after which, it would almost certainly rematerialize in some new form, rendering Falcon’s renaming project largely mute in time, if history is any guide (which I extensively documented in my earlier analysis).

      Federal Liberals beware. There’s a method in some conservatives’ madness that might not have been lost on Falcon.

      And then there’s Division 6.1, which deals with the millions of dollars in annual public subsidies and election expense reimbursements that the B.C. Liberals opted to take from taxpayers, along with the NDP and B.C. Greens in 2017. Another broken NDP promise.

      Under the Election Act, those rich multimillion-dollar subsidies are only provided “to a registered political party whose candidates in the most recent general election received at least two per cent of the total number of valid votes cast in all electoral districts, or five per cent of the total number of valid votes cast in the electoral districts in which the political party endorsed candidates.”

      Which begs the question: if the B.C. Liberal party label is deregistered and supplanted by a new label, would that actually be a new party or the same party under the act?

      Would the renamed party whose sitting Liberal MLAs ran as B.C. Liberal candidates still be legally entitled to its per member public subsidies, given that they were not actually candidates of the newly registered/renamed political party in the most recent general election?

      Note that this is the likely the main reason why Falcon is so careful to stress his renamed party would not actually be a new party, as such, or a merged party with the Conservatives or any other party.

      If it was, it would clearly be a new party under the act that would no longer be entitled to public subsidies.

      He can’t have it both ways, I suggest.

      If all that’s different is only the party name, isn’t it all just a hollow gesture? One that is really aimed at misleading voters into believing that the newly named party is really just the Liberal party after all, while also guaranteeing that no one can ever use that Liberal label for at least another decade.

      By the same token, how is that at all fair to voters, the legal text notwithstanding?

      Surely many voters supported the B.C. Liberals because of that label and its associated ideology. How is it at all fair or honest to give that party and its candidates that were elected under that label the same benefits, when no one actually voted for that new party label?

      If a handful of Liberal MLAs bolted to start a new party, for example, they wouldn’t be entitled to any annual subsidies, far as I can tell, as they wouldn’t qualify under the prescribed legal thresholds.

      But a sitting party can unilaterally change its name and instantly qualify?

      It’s like Coke one day deciding to rebrand itself as the “UnCola”—à la 7UP —but instead still fill their bottles and cans with the same Classic Coke and sell that as something other than what’s inside.

      It’s duplicitous, in my books. Perhaps one day the courts will be asked to consider this issue, as the law is now written.

      Will B.C. Liberal caucus members still be eligible to per-member public susidies if they run under a new name in the next election?
      B.C. Liberals

      Why not defer the decision?

      Which brings me to an alternative suggestion.

      If the Liberals really want to change their name, why not do that in a way that doesn’t dupe any voters?

      Why not defer the name change until after the next election, which Falcon rightly warns might come as soon as next spring? Particularly if the NDP sees another opportunity to take advantage of the Liberals’ name change distraction to its own advantage, as it did in 2020 when it blindsided the Greens and went back on its sworn agreement, in contempt of the fixed election date it put in place.

      Why not instead run on a promise to change the B.C. Liberal name if elected, and to also amend the Election Act as need be to better clarify the rules for all parties in future? Including to assure consistent treatment for all MLAs in respect of a party name change, crossing the floor to another party, or starting a new party?

      Surely, it would also be smarter for the Liberals to tackle this project, if they feel it’s necessary, soon after the next election—especially if they are fortunate enough to form the government and are in position to amend the Election Act to better facilitate that effort.

      As Falcon himself observed in an interview with CHEK News, “It’s important if we are going to do something like this then we move quickly."

      “Even though we brought in fixed election dates that say we’re not supposed to have an election until the fall of 2024, I don’t trust the NDP government at all," Falcon told CHEK. "They called an election in the midst of the pandemic, which was a cynical, blatant attempt to take advantage of a global pandemic to win a majority. Do you think I for a second trust them to obey the law and wait until 2025 to call the next election? Not at all.

      “I’m going to be going forward under the assumption there’s an excellent chance we could be facing a spring 2023, election and make sure everything we do is preparing for that eventuality.”

      As it is, changing the name to try to repackage Falcon’s old party as something new and different, which is really not that at all, will only be received as a cynical exercise in political expediency for purely partisan advantage.

      Indeed, the only ones who will probably relish that misguided initiative more than B.C.’s most ardent conservatives are the New Democrats.

      It will give them a brand-new argument to brand Falcon’s crew as simply conservatives by any other name, while also failing to take the Conservative label off the ballot.

      Plus, if Falcon continues his push to essentially rebrand himself as a kinder, gentler—dare I say, “liberal”—leader who is not the right-wing ideologue he once was, those far-right types who are most enamoured with the likes of Pierre Poilievre won’t be impressed.

      They, along with disaffected social conservatives, will still think that Falcon and his newly labelled Liberals are still “too far left”.

      They’ll still want to field and support some B.C. Conservative candidates, while many disaffected Liberals will be royally pissed at losing their party namesake—perhaps enough to make them want to start a new party or even bolt to the NDP, as a liberal party in all but name.

      For many months or longer, their party will be in limbo, immersed in an exercise that will amount to a campaign in its own right. New questions will emerge as to how to deal with party funds and assets if any constituency association gets its nose out of joint. Even attracting candidates who are not all deep-blue conservatives will be a new and harder challenge for Falcon.

      Not that any of those arguments will likely persuade many of the Liberals voting on the name change tomorrow.

      Support it, they will, and in so doing, I predict, will wish on their party a whole new world of hurt and/or aggravation that they never anticipated—largely at the expense of their efforts to focus all of their organizational energies on the NDP.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact him via email at