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  • Hope Lompe

Surrey 2022 election: 14 questions with pollster Mario Canseco and citizen voices on key issues

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

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Surrey city square. Photo by Hope Lompe

By Hope Lompe

The Surrey 2022 municipal election was a contentious race fueled by citizen dissatisfaction with the government and polarizing issues like the RCMP transition and housing.

The eight-way race included many familiar faces: Jinny Sims MLA, for Surrey-Panorama; Sukh Dhaliwal, MP for Surrey-Newton; sitting Surrey councilor Brenda Locke; former mayor of White Rock Gordie

Hogg, and incumbent Doug McCallum, seeking re-election for his third inconsecutive term.

14 questions with pollster Mario Canseco

Mario Canseco is a pollster, columnist and president of Research Co. Kwantlen School of Journalism chatted with him over Zoom before election day to ask some questions about the municipal election in Surrey.

Q: What insight can you provide on the issues that are most pressing for voters right now?

A: We did a survey of the whole Metro Vancouver area a couple of months ago. The number 1 issue across Metro Vancouver is housing. This is completely understandable. What's really fascinating is it went from an issue that was more likely to be a main concern for young people, aged 18 to 34, and now it has also become a concern for middle-aged residents.

Q: What about Surrey specifically?

A: In Surrey, we see crime and public safety a little bit higher than in other municipalities around Metro Vancouver, but not on a level that would suggest that this will be the number 1 issue. Going back to elections in the past, particularly in 2011, when the gang wars were rampant and we had a significantly larger volume of cases that were covered in the media, that was a moment when more people in Surrey were thinking that crime was the number 1 issue. But it's just not as high as it used to be. It's higher than in other parts of Metro Vancouver, but it's certainly not the number 1 issue at this time.

Q: Is this surprising given that we’ve recently had events like a gang-related shooting in South Surrey, for example?

A: Yeah, it's a tough one, because it hasn't really had the same ramifications that we've seen in other elections. There's always a higher level of concern in Surrey, we know that that's a problem. But it's not as severe as it used to be in elections past. I think it was one of the reasons for Doug McCallum to wrap himself around the concept of the Safe Surrey Coalition. It wasn't particularly successful for him in 2014, but he managed to win the election in 2018. Part of what we’ve seen is a lot of change after the discussions related to the future of the RCMP. The last time we asked about approval ratings, (McCallum’s) numbers were not great. He's got an approval rating that is lower than 30 per cent. That is not where you want to be when you're heading into a new election.

Q: Why is that?

A: It's complicated because I think there were a lot of promises related to safety, particularly related to policing that hasn't come to fruition. Obviously, the fact that he's going to be facing this court case after the election makes it even more complicated to try to connect on an issue such as crime.

Q: Do you think McCallum’s public mischief charge is still relevant enough to hurt his chances in the election?

A: I think they definitely will impact his chances. Part of the reason for this is the fact that it's happening after the election. Nobody wants to be facing the courts during a campaign.

The events of the past couple of days are also quite striking. It's his last opportunity to rubber stamp development because he still has a majority in council. We have seen a significantly larger number of permits that were issued over the past couple of days. It's kind of like a president in his last moments issuing pardons for all of his friends when you know there is no guarantee that you're going to come back and win the election. So in my estimation, their internal numbers are probably telling him the chances of him coming up the middle with 27, 28, 29 per cent of the vote are slim, and this is one of the reasons why he's making this concerted effort to try to get all of the things that his friends want to see done before he leaves office.

Q: A recent study published in the Vancouver Sun sugested 60 per cent of people in Surrey feel that things have worsened in the past four years. Does a polarizing election with such high dissatisfaction rates impact voter turnout?

A: We know that the participation rate in municipal elections is lower than it is in provincial and federal elections. Last time across Metro Vancouver the turnout was around 42 per cent, it was a little bit lower in Surrey. So the campaigns are calling everybody they know, and the next couple of weeks are going to be dominated by people calling and asking you to vote for their candidate. You want to get that sense of the community still being behind you, and the way people operate when they get those phone calls is a good indicator of whether they will actually cast the ballot for you or not. I think that's been one of the major issues here. For McCallum, this is his second time as mayor, but it's not like he's been there for eight or 12 years in a row. He has one of his councilors running against him with a new party and people coming in from the federal scene, provincial scene, like Gordie Hogg, who used to be mayor next door and now wants to be a mayor in Surrey. So all of these people are galvanizing against him. But I don't think he's going to get to the level that he had in the last election right with the ratings that he has right now. And this is one of the reasons for his behaviour over the past week.

Q: Speaking of his opponents, we have a lot of candidates with impressive political resumes, including Jinny Sims. She has had a neutral stance on the RCMP debate. Will that affect her in the election?

A: Well, one of the key elements here is the fact that you have a significantly higher level of name recognition if you've been active in provincial and federal politics. We saw the kind of effect that that had with Kennedy Stewart four years ago. I think what's interesting about Jinny's campaign, she's got Stephen Carter working as the strategist, Stephen is one of the most brilliant minds when it comes to running campaigns. I think there's an opportunity, especially in the early stages of the race, to look at all the other candidates discussing certain things and then in the final stages, you come up with your plan, that's one of the reasons for the silence. Part of the strategy is to save some of those important morsels of policy for the final stages because that's when people will say: “oh, you know, I had my doubts about Jinny Sims, but I really like this idea. And I'm going to vote for her.”

Q: How does that compare with Doug McCallum and Brenda Locke, who have come out with their hard stance right out the gate?

A: Well, Brenda is remarkably well known. What's fascinating about Brenda is she's got experience provincially. She's somebody who was there in the early stages of McCallum and who was one of the top vote-getters in the 2018 council election. She's the one who basically decided this is not where she wants to continue. I think it's been interesting that she's been very vocal on certain decisions that were taken by the council that she was part of.

People like that act of contrition, that opportunity to say: “we didn't think that the mayor was going to do certain things.” She was very clear early on that she didn't want to be part of this anymore. So I think in her case she's been opposing McCallum for a long time, and I think that's a larger opportunity to connect with the public. If you have a mayor with an approval rating as low as McCallum's, they're going to look for an alternative, and the first place they're going to look is going to be council.

Q: With that said, do people base their voting decisions on backing the person or backing an issue? What do we know about municipal election voting behaviour in this capacity?

A: Yeah, that's a very good point. What we have seen in the past, with the domination of Surrey First, was a slate that sometimes had super majorities. When you have every single vote in council, you can do whatever you want. It's difficult to try to recreate something like this unless you connect very heavily on a specific issue. What people are really dissatisfied with is the options that they have at their disposal. Surrey has been run like that for quite some time. What we've seen is people vote for the mayoral candidate and everybody else that is attached to his or her name. This is part of the reason for the majorities that we've had in the past. You have very credible candidates running for council, but if their mayoral candidate doesn't do well, their chances of winning are greatly affected. In an election, could that mean somebody getting 37 or 38 per cent of the vote? Will you have a mixed council? If, let's say for the sake of argument, Brenda Locke wins, but she only has three councilors, and everybody else is from other parties, how are you going to convince them to vote with you on some issues? This used to be a lot easier before we had a party system. You could appeal to people on the strength of the policies that they were putting forward. But now that we have a party system, it's more complicated.

Q: Doug McCallum was absent from the housing debate and, as you mentioned, housing is a very important issue in this election. Why would he do something like that? Does a move like that sway voters in any capacity?

A: No, I think the behaviour that we've seen from McCallum over the past couple of months is, essentially, what is referred to in political campaigns as “save the furniture.” Just make sure that the base is there and that you have the level of contact you need to have with the voters who have always liked what you've done. Let's not say anything that could actually be more upsetting to voters, and just try to keep it as simple as we can.

I mean, the promises that were made, some of the things that he's been talking about, particularly the stadium, is a way in which you can pander to voters who are not well informed, who are maybe new to the city, even if they're not, it might be their first time voting in Surrey. They think: “if the mayor wants this, then maybe this is a good idea.” I think that’s where the appeal is, but it's not the type of campaign that can lead to hope.

What was successful the last time was he tried to capture the sentiment of concern about crime with a policy idea that was new, essentially getting rid of the RCMP, and there's a policy idea attached to something that is coming to serve the people. Right now, nobody is concerned about the presence of a stadium. It seems to be that the notion he's going to freeze property taxes lower than 3 per cent, with the inflation that we're seeing, suggests that he's trying to pander to people who are concerned about the cost of living. But it's going against everything that the economy, over the past few months, has told us. He can promise it, but if inflation rates go the way they're supposed to, you're not going to have enough money to pay for garbage trucks.

Q: McCallum’s stance on climate change has been interesting. The city's Zero Carbon Action Plan was meant to receive final approval back in the spring-summer, but that's not yet happened, and it probably won't until after the election. Is that a strategy as well? To remain neutral?

A: It's a delicate balance, because, you know, there's always this opportunity for a municipal government to delve into situations that are not their direct jurisdiction. In the same way that we wouldn't have (Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau proposing a lower speed rating in cities, it's complicated for a municipal government to say this is how we're planning to deal with climate change. You can make a dent with specific decisions, like moving your fleet towards electric vehicles, installing more charging stations, or reducing your carbon footprint in specific ways.

But you wind up in a situation where the level of sacrifice that is being asked of you is not similar to what is going to be asked of other people and that's when it becomes an issue that can throw voters off. You can do a top-down thing when it comes to climate change, but trying to do more than your share, and asking for those sacrifices from the voters could actually lead to your demise.

Q: Along similar lines of municipal governments working outside their jurisdiction, the provincial government has begun development on a new hospital in Surrey. You published that half of British Columbians feel the biggest issue right now is access to doctors and nurses. Doug McCallum came out and said he'll do whatever he can to support it, which is not his domain. Will that help him going into an election?

A: Well, I think he's trying to connect with voters who may not be aware that this isn't something that is coming out of municipal jurisdiction. There is no guarantee that the hospital will be operational before the next election and somebody is going to be there to cut the ribbon when it's done. Obviously, he wants to be that person. It's a benefit because it's in his municipality, but it's not something that he can tie his wagon to.

Q: Of the issues that are most pressing right now - the RCMP, housing, and climate change among others - what are the ones that are most likely to swing voters one way or another based on policy alone?

A: Well, aside from those, I think it's ultimately a referendum on accountability. For a long time, Surrey was the darling of Metro Vancouver. Diane Watts was very well-liked. I think now there's a sense of dissatisfaction from voters with what has become of the city under McCallum, but the fact is we're back to the situation we had in the early 2000s of Surrey being the butt of jokes and nothing really getting done. A mayor who said that he was run over, I mean, it's just too complicated.

Part of what I see here, and more so than in any other municipality at this stage, is this is a referendum on where we want to go. And the way you can tell if an incumbent is fragile is by how many people are lining up to run against them. We never saw broad coalitions of voters running against Diane Watts. They are jumping into this because they smell blood on the water, they see an opportunity to defeat somebody who has a sense of dismay from voters that he may get in again. Frankly, I had the expectation that maybe he wasn't going to run again because we started to see the numbers dropping as the election rolled near, and that's when usually you have this escape hatch. He's insistent that he can get this done with the tools at his disposal, but it's definitely problematic.

Q: Finally, is there anything else people should know, going into this election?

A: Well, one thing that fascinates me is how we can change the system. We see a high level of support for amalgamation and the ward system, and the level of support for both concepts is significantly higher in Vancouver and in Surrey than anywhere else. There's a reason for that, there's a sense that by having an at-large council, you don't really have anybody who you can take your complaints to. If we had a ward system would things be a little bit easier? Well, voters in Surrey seem to believe that that would be the case, that it would be easier to just vote for specific people who are looking into issues that are affecting neighbourhoods.

The other one is amalgamation. I think Surrey finds this interesting because given the current demographic trends, we might actually be known as Metro Surrey in the next 10 years. There's gonna be more people in Surrey since Vancouver can't grow anywhere else. So we might be in a situation where Surrey, becomes the de facto most populated municipality in the Lower Mainland. I mean it's a matter for the future, but the fact that people want to see the ward system implemented is a big issue for me. There's always that tendency, and you look at it from the way voters behave at the federal and provincial level: "who's my MLA, I need to complain about this right now". However, at the municipal level, nobody is your representative, but everybody's your representative, and that leads to a disconnect with voters. I think that's one of the reasons why the ward system is so popular in Surrey and in Vancouver, people want to know who to complain to. If it's something that Vancouver and Surrey want, I think it'll get done eventually.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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