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Rob Shaw: Will the BC NDP lay down the law in Surrey?

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth can determine Surrey's police force, but not without political risk
Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has a political policing dilemma in Surrey.

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has tried it all when dealing with Surrey’s mayor the last few months. He’s lectured Brenda Locke and her council allies about public safety, pressured them with provincial reports, cajoled them with threatening letters and enticed them with cash.

But they’ve refused to budge.

The minister has one move left: Bring the hammer down on council, and force the city to keep the Surrey Police Service.

The official line from Victoria is Farnworth lacks the legislative power to end years of squabbling over policing in the city by rejecting Locke’s bid to revert back to the RCMP.

But that’s nonsense, and almost everyone in provincial politics knows it. Farnworth has wide latitude on public safety under the Police Act. He literally has the power to lay down the law. He just has to choose to use it, and let the political chips fall where they may.

That’s still one of the options on the table.

Farnworth could review the latest policing plan written by Surrey staff, which formed the basis for last week’s in-camera council vote to keep the RCMP, and reject it as incorrect and inadequate in addressing the public safety needs of both the city and the province.

The decision would stop Surrey in its tracks, and revert it back to the transition to a new municipal police service. Future council votes on the subject would be moot.

There’s only one problem: Farnworth still hasn’t seen that plan.

Surrey is refusing to share its policing report with the province, unless the solicitor general signs a non-disclosure agreement.

The move is a cheeky back slap against the province, which forced Surrey’s mayor and council to sign NDAs to read its unredacted analysis of Surrey’s policing situation last month. It’s also patently absurd — not only are policing plans the legal purview of the province, but municipalities are creatures of the provincial government under law. A minister shouldn’t have to sign an NDA to get access to a document needed to exercise his legal oversight of a lower level of government; a document produced using his ministry’s own data and in conjunction with his own ministry staff.

Nonetheless, it sounds like Farnworth is willing to do it, simply to expedite actually getting his hands on the paperwork. Yet as of Sunday, Surrey had yet to actually give him an NDA to sign.

Overriding Locke and her majority on council will have political ramifications for some of the NDP’s six Surrey MLAs. Locke’s allies will be furious. Undoubtedly, there would be a lawsuit.

It could hurt the chances of some New Democrats in next year’s provincial election.

But there is also a much wider, broader public sentiment of fatigue in the community about this whole mess, that the NDP could turn in its favour.

People are tired of hearing about the policing debate, and the years of squabbling it has produced. Nobody is happy spending $8 million a month servicing two police departments. And there are much bigger crises brewing on health care at Surrey Memorial Hospital and in education at its overcrowded schools.

A provincial government that shows leadership on putting the policing issue to bed, once and for all, so that everyone can focus on other things, may end up looking like the responsible adult in the room in the eyes of the electorate.

The alternative is to delay what will be inevitable. Farnworth’s ministry set binding conditions on Surrey’s return to the RCMP which are viewed by many as unachievable. If the minister dithers, he simply sets up a scenario where his ministry staff are forced to watch every move made by the RCMP and the city over the next few months, until one tiny subsection of one condition is breached, and then the hammer drops anyway.

The only difference? Months of time and millions of dollars wasted.

Locke’s single minded stubbornness on the RCMP has caught many by surprise. There’s not much more the province can do to change her mind. Facts and figures in its policing report didn’t work. More than $150 million in incentives failed to lure away a single vote from her coalition.

The NDP government, though, can still turn the situation around to its benefit. But it will need to show some political courage and leadership. It will need Farnworth to lay down the law.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 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, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]