There’s an old axiom in politics: The voters are never wrong. That goes doubly so in Surrey, where voters comprise one of the most important blocks of support in B.C. politics.
As Surrey goes, quite often, so does the government. So the voters there are, to use a highly technical political term, super never wrong.
Keep that in mind if you’re wondering what the BC NDP government will do over the conundrum with Surrey’s on-and-off-again switch to a municipal police force.
The NDP has bent over backwards to accommodate the wishes of the Surrey electorate during its term in office. It scrapped bridge tolls. It backed the taxi sector over ride-hailing companies. It funded an outrageously expensive $4 billion Skytrain line to Langley, after a promise by Doug McCallum garnered public support and swept him into office. And it authorized the original plan to switch Surrey from the RCMP to its own municipal police force, again because of McCallum’s dominant 2018 win.
Much of the approvals were borne out of fear of getting on the wrong side of Surrey voters.
The NDP worried McCallum had tapped into a wellspring of local discontent over transit and policing that it didn’t fully understand. Better to give the resoundingly popular mayor what he wanted, and hope the complicated network of political power brokers in Surrey’s various regional and ethnic communities remained satisfied enough to continue to support local New Democrat MLAs.
But the times have changed.
McCallum was drummed out of office in October’s municipal election, and now faces charges of public mischief over allegations he made misleading claims to police about whether his foot was run over by a pro-RCMP supporter outside a grocery store.
New Mayor Brenda Locke won with a promise to halt McCallum’s transition to a Surrey police force, and restore the RCMP. She reiterated it after her victory on election night, and this coming week the fledgling Surrey police department is expected to halt hiring new officers.
The BC NDP will get dragged into this mess whether it likes it or not, because Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has the final say over whether to allow the switcheroo back to the RCMP.
To try and influence his decision, there is immense pressure being exerted from the police department’s leadership, and its newly hired members.
The Surrey Police Service union recently released a pledge saying 94 per cent of its 275 members will refuse to rejoin the RCMP because they say it’s a toxic work environment, and lacks accountability to the local public, among other things.
The chief of the new police force and the chair of its board have also publicly challenged Locke and claimed she can’t follow through on her promise.
Other critics are pointing to the $100 million already spent on the transition, along with the complicated headache that would be required for municipal officers to transition back into the Surrey RCMP, given the different federal training standards, ranks, pensions and pay scales.
There’s a persuasive factual case that going back to the Surrey RCMP makes no sense. But there was a persuasive factual case there wasn’t enough rider density to justify building a Skytrain line to nowhere too, and that still happened. And the original plan to cancel Surrey RCMP in favour of a new force didn’t look great when you drilled down into the details either.
None of that is going to matter.
When it comes to Surrey and this provincial government, the calculus is simple: Whatever voters voted for in the last municipal election, voters get.
The NDP’s hold of 10 of the 12 seats in the region is not by accident. It is by, at almost every turn, appeasing the voters there in recognition that there are more seats to be won in Surrey than in the entire northern half of the province.
Don’t be surprised if Farnworth approves the transition back to the RCMP.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.