COMMENTARY: Surrey election campaign may be B.C.’s most consequential

Click to play video: '‘Honest to god my blood sugar’s low’: why Surrey mayoral candidate Tom Gill passed on election question'
‘Honest to god my blood sugar’s low’: why Surrey mayoral candidate Tom Gill passed on election question
In a video posted to social media, Surrey mayoral candidate Tom Gill explains to CKNW reporter Janet Brown why he passed on a question at an election event in Guildford Wednesday night – Oct 11, 2018

Surrey — the future lives here. From afar, it’s hard to disagree. In the next generation, Surrey will surpass Vancouver as B.C.’s largest city.

It has a young population that represents the present and future employment engine of Metro Vancouver. It’s very diverse with over 43 per cent of its population born outside Canada. It’s growing fast with room to grow.

The next Surrey Council will have four years to shape the future, and not just of 316 square kilometres south of the Fraser, but as the second largest voting bloc on the Metro Vancouver regional board. It will have influence from Bowen Island to Bradner.

READ MORE: B.C. municipal election 2018 profile — Surrey

Against this backdrop, the Surrey City election on Oct. 20 may have the most impact of any local election in British Columbia. The leading mayoralty candidates have staked out very different positions that will either confirm Surrey’s direction or take a sharp turn elsewhere.

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Jump in the time machine back to 2005. Incumbent mayor Doug McCallum and his Surrey Electors Team (SET) were facing re-election. SET had a well-oiled, well-funded machine, except for one problem — Coun. Dianne Watts, elected as part of SET’s team, fell out with McCallum. She challenged him as an independent and won the mayoralty, with SET still controlling a majority on Council. At first, the SET councillors resisted Watts, but ultimately, she prevailed, building a new well-oiled, well-funded civic party — Surrey First — that won easy re-elections in 2008 and 2011.

When Watts left office in 2014, McCallum jumped into the mayor’s race with a new civic party. Surrey First nominated Linda Hepner. Public polls showed a close race, but Hepner and Surrey First easily cruised to victory on election day.

COMMENTARY: Crowded races and changing times — Mike McDonald reviews the many ways candidates can seek your vote

Fast-forward to today. Hepner is retiring after one term. Surrey First had a difficult transition in which three councillors split off to run with a new party, Integrity Now, led by Coun. Bruce Hayne, who is seeking the mayoralty. Surrey First, supported by Watts and Hepner, is being led by Coun. Tom Gill, who could be the first South Asian to be mayor of Surrey.

And who are they both contending with? Doug McCallum, back again for another run, this time under the banner of the Safe Surrey Coalition.

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Not only is there this personal dynamic to the race, the campaigns are set apart by clear differences on major issues.

Public safety is the hottest issue in Surrey. Gang violence and crime remain vexing problems and voters are demanding solutions. Surrey has the largest local detachment of RCMP officers in Canada. McCallum wants a local force and would move immediately to end the RCMP contract. Hayne wants to keep the RCMP but have a local police board. Gill says he would hold a referendum on whether to keep the RCMP, once voters have all the facts to make an informed choice.

READ MORE: Surrey’s top cop speaks for first time since allegations in city’s election campaign

Public transit is another key difference. Watts and Hepner championed Light Rail Transit (LRT) on the King George corridor and over to Guildford. Gill wants to avoid delays and stay the course with financial and political support already secured from the federal and provincial governments, and the region’s Mayors’ Council. McCallum wants to discard that plan and extend SkyTrain along Fraser Highway to Langley, while using buses rather than LRT on other routes. Hayne wants to press the pause button on LRT to re-evaluate its business case, while supporting SkyTrain along Fraser Highway.

On development, Gill and Hayne want to increase density, while McCallum says he will “pause development.” Not only is that a huge difference with the other candidates, it’s a very different position from 2005, when McCallum touted an 81-floor office tower and was seen as a pro-development mayor.

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READ MORE: B.C. municipal election digest for Oct. 12

This is just a taste of some of the differences between these camps. It’s an active, hard-fought campaign. McCallum is stress-testing Surrey First’s record, while inviting comment about how he can implement his own promises. Bruce Hayne is looking to pull off the rare political feat of “coming up the middle” by offering change with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

A major element of any campaign in Surrey is its sizeable South Asian community, which accounts for about one-third of the city’s population. Punjabi radio, print, and TV media are delivering campaign news to local residents. It’s a switched-on community when it comes to politics, under-represented historically at the civic level, but well-represented among federal MPs and provincial MLAs from Surrey.

The Surrey race is very different from Vancouver’s. The campaign in Vancouver is enigmatic and elusive, while Surrey’s is blunt and direct. In Vancouver, the incumbent party, Vision Vancouver, isn’t fielding a mayoralty candidate and the main contenders for mayor of Vancouver weren’t even on the radar screen a year ago.

In Surrey, the incumbent party is defending its record and vision in a hard-fought campaign against experienced, well-known opponents. The vigorous campaign may stimulate voter turnout. Only 100,000 of Surrey’s 350,000 registered voters made it to the polls in 2014. Polling stations in Surrey certainly have room to grow, too.

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If Doug McCallum pulls off a win on Oct. 20, the Surrey time machine will indeed have gone back to the future. Whoever does win will be setting the course for B.C.’s growing, bustling, soon-to-be largest city.

Mike McDonald is chief strategy officer with Kirk & Co., senior research associate with Pollara Strategic Insights, and served as chief of staff to former B.C. premier Christy Clark.

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