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Surrey’s municipal election – and what it means

They weren’t on the ballot, but Shinder Purewal says the NDP should worry about Surrey First’s defeat nonetheless
Dark clouds over Surrey

Desperate for votes, Surrey First sold its soul to the NDP – and it crushed them. Now, the NDP have to be wondering: are our Surrey MLAs next?

Surrey First mayor candidate Tom Gill’s loss is bigger than just another local municipal election. It shows how the NDP’s Surrey ministers, MLAs and other supporters failed to capture the city hall through Gill’s coup d'état of Surrey First.

Gill was soundly defeated by Doug McCallum. While Bruce Hayne had a lead in 16 voting locations, Gill led in only two: a mail-in ballot, and Surrey Memorial Hospital – the latter of which saw a total of 11 people voting. (Gill won, four votes to McCallum’s three.)

A mail-in ballot controversy invited a double investigation from the City of Surrey’s election office and the RCMP. Although no one has been charged, it shows that Surrey is at a lower level of politics than ever before.

The NDP-Gill alliance included endorsements from left-wing MLAs and organizers. Gill touted endorsements from Moe Sihota, Sue Hammell and Bob Bose. It didn’t help.

The most devastating news for NDP was the huge loss for Gill in predominantly South Asian polls – the voting locations of Newton and Green Timbers, both in solid provincial NDP territory, speak volumes about this defeat. The South Asian community’s support was crucial to win three seats in Surrey for the NDP, which gave it a chance to form government in Victoria.

Based on the municipal voting trend, if an election were to be held today (with the current electoral system), all three NDP seats would go back to the BC Liberals – and should also make Ravi Kahlon, the NDP’s Delta MLA, nervous.

The voters in Surrey punished the Surrey First for a split in its ranks, which was caused by a push by Gill to make it a local franchise of NDP.

In addition, Surrey First forgot the most important lesson in democracy – consulting people on major decisions. It decided to support Light Rail Transit without any meaningful consultation. Surprisingly, the same council was more willing to consult people on the issue of peacocks in one neighbourhood than on a project costing taxpayers $1.6 billion.

An old Chinese proverb says “Tell me, I forget; show me, I remember; involve me, I understand.” It’s not clear if people voted against the proposed transit system, but it’s abundantly clear that they expressed anger about not being consulted.

Former mayor Dianne Watts had built Surrey First as a coalition of free enterprise and forward-looking, pro-development politicians of all hues. The same coalition was able to win a major victory after Watts left the city politics.

However, an attempt by Gill to break this coalition and make Surrey First a subsidiary of the NDP failed miserably. As a result, it has become a matter of survival for the NDP to push for Proportional Representation, which it thinks means coalition government with the Greens forever.

In 1881, the City of Surrey was incorporated as a district municipality made up of 35 property owners. It has grown into the second-largest municipality in the province. It is the fastest-growing city in British Columbia.

For its great future, let’s hope new mayor Doug McCallum will build and lead a forward-looking coalition like his predecessors.

While the city of Surrey has a great future, the hopes and dreams of NDP are facing major challenges after their failure to elect Tom Gill.

Dr. Shinder Purewal is a professor of political science at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, a regular political commentator, and the author of two books, Tandoori Democracy and Sikh Ethnonationalism and the Political Economy of Punjab. He lives in Surrey.