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Former cabinet minister Kevin Falcon wins B.C. Liberal leadership race on 5th ballot

VANCOUVER — Former cabinet minister Kevin Falcon who promised to renew and rebuild British Columbia's Liberals into the political powerhouse of their recent past was elected party leader Saturday.

VANCOUVER — Former cabinet minister Kevin Falcon who promised to renew and rebuild British Columbia's Liberals into the political powerhouse of their recent past was elected party leader Saturday.

Falcon won on the fifth ballot, taking just over 52 per cent of the points available in a sometimes fractious leadership race where the former minister appeared to be the focus of attacks as the perceived front-runner.

Legislature member Ellis Ross finished second with almost 34 per cent of the vote and caucus colleague Michael Lee was third with about 14 per cent. Val Litwin, Gavin Dew, Renee Merrifield and Stan Sipos were dropped from the field during the evening.

"I'm humbled by the strength of support I've received tonight," said Falcon, standing on the victory stage with his wife and two daughters.

"We have a lot of work to do," he said. "That includes a root-to-branch rebuild."

Falcon, 59, left politics a decade ago to spend more time with his young family and work in the private sector with a Vancouver investment and property development firm. 

He held a number of portfolios in cabinet after first being elected in 2001 including transportation, health, finance and deputy premier. Falcon finished second in the 2011 leadership contest, losing to Christy Clark, who served as premier until the party lost power in 2017.

The leadership race was called after the resignation of Andrew Wilkinson following the party's 2020 election defeat as the NDP won a majority government.

An election post-mortem report released by the party last June said the Liberals are perceived by many as lacking diversity and must embark on a rebranding that supports the values and aspirations of voters. It said the province has changed and so must the B.C. Liberals.

"There is a desire like I've never seen before for candour, confidence and leadership," Falcon said. "You voted for speaking plainly and honestly for the people we serve. And you voted for compassion."

Falcon said the former Liberal governments of which he was part made major accomplishments on environmental, financial and infrastructure fronts. Under his leadership, Falcon said the party will be known for bold policies and goals.

"We got most things right in government, not everything, but we got the big things right," he said. "We were leaders once and let me tell you tonight, we will be leaders again in the province of B.C."

Mike Bernier, a Liberal member of the legislature who supported Falcon, said the party needs a leader who can unite B.C.'s urban and rural voters and its Conservative and Liberal supporters. The B.C. Liberals are not affiliated with the federal Liberal party and have describe themselves as "a made-in-B.C. free enterprise coalition."

"He checks all the boxes we need for a leader," said Bernier, who was among a dozen Liberal caucus members who backed Falcon.

Lee called the more than yearlong campaign a marathon, but one that will result in a stronger, united party. 

"We have a lot of work in front of us and I know we can get it done," said Lee, who stood on the stage shaking hands with Falcon. 

The party gained more than 20,000 members during the leadership process, bringing its total membership to about 43,000. Members were eligible to vote online or by phone starting last Thursday in a voting system that awarded points to the candidates based on how those ballots were cast.

But during the campaign, concerns about new party memberships were raised by several leadership candidates, leading to an audit by the party.

A last-minute petition was filed this week by longtime party member Vikram Bajwa in the B.C. Supreme Court to delay the release of Saturday's results for 15 days, but a judge rejected the legal bid just hours before the Liberals were scheduled to announce a winner.

Justice Heather MacNaughton said Bajwa's evidence was speculative and delaying the results would be unfair to other party members. She also found a delay would have caused irreparable harm to the party.

A lawyer for the party argued in court on Friday that Bajwa had not provided substantial evidence to support his concerns of voter irregularities, and the party's own evidence showed reasonable steps were taken to ensure voter eligibility.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Feb. 5, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Dirk Meissner and Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press