Policing transition jumps to head of class in provincial campaign for Surrey's nine seats


In Surrey at least, the BC Liberals may have new life after announcing that the policing transition requires a referendum before going any farther. This, of course, will only happen should party leader Andrew Wilkinson gain enough seats to become premier.

The policing transition in Surrey has become a major campaign issue in the provincial election, and it has the potential to give the BC Liberals a big boost. Whether it will be enough for the party to regain power after more than three years in the political wilderness is another question. The NDP are well ahead in the most recent public opinion polls.

The BC Liberal party issued a statement on Sunday that a BC Liberal government would pause the transition process, and give Surrey residents a vote in a referendum on whether to switch to a new Surrey Police force or stick with the RCMP. Mike Farnworth, who as public safety minister gave the transition the green light and specifically said there would be no referendum, calls this pledge interference in what should be a municipal government decision. While he may be technically correct, municipalities have no constitutional authority on their own. They are creatures of the province and there are hundreds of past examples of the province interfering in areas of municipal jurisdiction. 

As noted by this blog just after the election was called, two ridings in particular could switch back to the BC Liberals   if the policing transition turned into a major issue. They are Surrey-Panorama, currently held by Jinny Sims of the NDP, and Surrey-Guildford, held by Garry Begg of the NDP (who is a former high-ranking Surrey RCMP officer).

Could the announcement have an effect on the other four ridings held by the NDP? Perhaps. Surrey-Whalley and Surrey-Green Timbers are both pretty strong NDP territory and have been that way for decades. It would require a lot of voters to switch for those seats to go BC Liberal. I think Surrey-Newton, home to a large number of South Asian voters, is a bit more likely to switch. It has been NDP continuously since 2005, and MLA Harry Bains (who is seeking re-election) is very popular. However, the policing issue has been a very hot one in the South Asian community, and many people are very passionate on both sides of the issue.

The fourth riding that is traditionally pretty strong for the NDP is Surrey-Fleetwood. However, the BC Liberals did manage to win it by a narrow margin in 2013, so a switch there isn’t impossible either.

One other interesting twist is this: the Greens are not running candidates in Surrey-Green Timbers, Surrey-Panorama and Surrey-Whalley. Where will those votes go - and will policing be an issue for those who traditionally have voted Green?

There is a hint of déjà vu in this announcement. In the 2017 campaign, the BC Liberals said they would cap the annual amount of tolls drivers paid for using the Port Mann Bridge. The NDP under John Horgan almost immediately upped the ante, promising that tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges (the latter is owned by TransLink) would be gone. There is no question that swung at least two Surrey seats and the two in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows to the NDP. Those four extra seats gave them enough seats to form a government when they were able to reach a confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party. Within weeks, the tolls were gone.

Will the NDP try and respond to the BC Liberals’ announcement, or will they ignore the issue? They may do so at their peril. Peace Arch News reporter Aaron Hinks had this to say on Twitter about four hours after the news broke: “Letters/notes keep coming in from Surrey residents that are thrilled about BC Liberal announcement on Surrey Police. I've never seen this kind of instant reaction to an election promise before. This may have huge impact on results in Surrey.”

Also on Twitter, Barinder S. Bhullar had some insightful comments on the power of the grass roots. He said this: “The #Surrey police transition has been denounced by the @bcndp & @bcliberals. The proposed municipal police force is being pushed through without a feasibility study, proper planning or genuine consultation. You cannot underestimate grass roots. Trust me, I lived though the #HST.”

That reference to the HST is extremely valid. The BC Liberals were sure that the HST they brought in weeks after the 2009 provincial election, after promising not to, was bullet (and initiative) proof. They were wrong. Bill Vander Zalm and Bill Tieleman organized the grass roots, and the HST was overturned in a referendum after a successful initiative campaign. Gordon Campbell was finished as premier. He also managed to rehabilitate Vander Zalm's reputation. He had resigned as premier in 1993, but stood much higher in the eyes of most of the public as a result of the initiative. It was quite an achievement.

As recently as 2018, most people said Surrey would be stuck with LRT on 104 Avenue and King George Boulevard, even though most residents obviously favoured SkyTrain. Doug McCallum was elected mayor, with a pledge to build SkyTrain instead. LRT is gone. Very few Surrey residents have a problem with that.

McCallum also pushed through the police transition, but I believe he overplayed his hand by showing an absolute contempt for anyone, including members of his own slate elected with him, who was asking that the process be more transparent. Perhaps most importantly, he alienated Jack Hundial, a former Surrey RCMP officer who was elected as part of McCallum’s slate, and has become a very effective critic on this issue. McCallum had an 8-1 majority on election night. Now it is 5-4.

If the BC Liberals did manage to win as many as seven Surrey seats, it would be a huge blow to the NDP. However, the Surrey Police issue is strictly a Surrey issue. The BC Liberals have to find different issues which resonate with voters in other ridings as well.

The next two and one-half weeks will be very interesting. It’s also important to note that, with so many mail-in ballots being requested, many people will be voting very soon. If the NDP completely ignore the policing transition issue, other promises they make are meaningless if people have already voted.  




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