The province’s three largest political parties all made big ticket promises on the B.C. provincial election campaign trail, Sunday.
In a bid to pick up crucial seats in rapidly-growing Surrey, the BC Liberals waded into the debate on the city’s transition from the RCMP to a municipal police force.
In media release, the party pledged to freeze the transition, “provide transparency and accountability” and then hold a referendum on the transition.
“The reality is the NDP has bungled this from the beginning. They mayor has a plan, but the voters have been asking for transparency, what is it going to cost, what’s happening, what does it mean, what are the changes, how is it going to impact people?” said Surrey South Liberal candidate Stephanie Cadieux.
“We believe it’s their right to have a say and to understand what the implications are for the city.”
The transition from the RCMP was a marquee promise in Mayor Doug McCallum’s 2018 election campaign and credited by some with helping his Safe Surrey Coalition sweep to power.
However the issue has been dogged by controversy since then, helping split the coalition apart and fueling a petition to keep the RCMP that’s garnered tens of thousands of signatures.
A recent poll found 58 per cent of Surrey residents opposed the transition.
In a statement, McCallum said the new Surrey Police Service was a “done deal,” and that the council had voted unanimously for the transition “in accordance with the law.”
“I am appalled that the BC Liberal leader has stooped to this level of desperation in an effort to garner votes,” McCallum said.
“For the BC Liberals to interfere in the unanimous decision of an elected city council should be a concern to all municipal governments in our province.”
In a statement, Port Coquitlam NDP candidate Mike Farnworth, who as solicitor general approved the police transition, called the Liberals’ promise a “flip flop.”
“This blatant disrespect is offensive to the city and citizens of Surrey, who are quite capable of managing the affairs of their city in accordance with their legal authority,” he said.
Farnworth pointed to the Police Act, which he said puts the responsibility for policing decisions in the hands of municipal governments, calling provincial intervention in the process “a major violation of the relationship” with the civic government.
BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau responded to the promise by saying that the provincial government should work more closely with municipalities.
“We have had for too long in B.C. other levels of government imposed decisions on local governments,” Furstenau said.
“I know that that is an issue that has some controversies and contentiousness in Surrey, but I encourage all leaders of the other parties to recognize that we will work better when we work collaboratively and when we are at the table to listen and to understand the needs of local communities.”
‘Not without risk’
Targeting Surrey ridings paid off for the NDP in 2017, delivering them six of nine seats in the city.
In that campaign, the party pledged to eliminate tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges, a policy credited with helping them break through in the suburbs.
“This kind of move has the potential for that impact as well, something that taps into some popular discontent south of the Fraser and finds a way to turn it into a provincial election issue,” Simon Fraser University political scientists Stewart Prest told Global News.
“But it’s not without risk.”
Prest said the promise could be an effective populist move in the key Surrey battleground ridings, but by refusing to take a position on the transition itself, the Liberals could risk looking like they’re “leading from behind.”
He said it also risks undermining confidence and trust between municipal and provincial governments by overturning the established decision making process.
“We’re really talking here about the the the last municipal election, when this was a major campaign plank of the current mayor … that was one of the deciding points in that election,” Prest said.
“The mayor had a pretty strong case to say he could go ahead with that decision, and now to say we’re going to reopen the issue and we’re going to do it in a way that takes the decision out of the hands of these municipal politicians … might upset some people.
Elsewhere on the campaign trail Sunday, the NDP promised to return any profits generated by ICBC during the COVID-19 pandemic to drivers in the form of a rebate cheque.
Vancouver-Point Grey NDP candidate David Eby, who managed the ICBC file in the NDP government, said the rebate would be paid at the same time as new ICBC rates kick in on May 1.
Eby estimated that the new rates, part of the NDP’s move to a no-fault style insurance model, will save drivers about 20 per cent.
In May, Eby resisted calls for an ICBC rebate, saying the public insurer’s finances were too volatile.
BC Liberal Richmond Queensborough candidate Jas Johal accused the NDP of trying to buy voters off with their own money.
Between March and June, ICBC saw a nearly 50 per cent drop in claims, he said, amounting to $158 million in savings.
“Public and private insurance companies across North America were sending cheques back to ratepayers in June,” Johal said.
“Mr. Eby and the NDP have been hoarding this money to dole out to the public during this unnecessary pandemic election.”
Furstenau also slammed the refund as political gamesmanship.
“David Eby criticized the BC Liberals for using ICBC as campaign tactics, as trying to encourage people to vote for them in these kinds of ways,” she said.
“This is how we got in trouble under the BC Liberals with so many of our programs, whether it was B.C. Hydro or ICBC, with these kind of cynical things that are undermining long term good governance.”
Campaigning in Duncan (Cowichan Valley) on Sunday, Furstenau had her own big-ticket promise, the Greens’ first of the campaign.
The party is pledging $500 million per year in the form of a renters’ grant.
Unlike the NDP’s long-promised renters’ rebate, Furstenau said the Green grant would be means tested, and targeted only to people who are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent.
The grant would function to top-up renters by the percentage of their rent that went above the 30-per cent threshold, said Furstenau.