This first week of 2020 brings with it the birth of yet another civic political slate.
And like many such slates before it, this one was delivered in the context of political infighting that led to a renewed alliance and promise to do things better for our growing city.
Surrey Connect is so far an alliance of two, comprised of Surrey city councillors Brenda Locke and Jack Hundial, who both parted ways in 2019 with their former political team – the Safe Surrey Coalition – over frustration with Mayor Doug McCallum’s leadership at city hall.
Locke, a veteran politician, bailed from the SSC in June, citing disgruntlement with what she characterized as McCallum’s “my way or the highway” approach to governance.
Hundial split from the coalition in July, to also sit as an independent, saying it didn’t resemble the SSC he got elected with in 2018. For Hundial, the “final straw” came when McCallum dissolved the city’s public safety committee.
Steven Pettigrew split from the SSC before Locke did, in May, telling the Now-Leader at the time, “I just tried to ride out the storm, but I just, enough is enough.”
Pettigrew could not be reached for comment to shed light on why he has not joined up with the pair on their newly struck alliance. He remains the lone independent on council. While Annis is also alone, she is backed by a once powerful entity, Surrey First.
So why do slates form at the civic level? Is it simply because misery loves company, or because these are the best vehicles to not only get elected, but to also stay elected? Maybe there is something to the old saying: United we stand and divided we fall.
Dr. Stewart Prest, a lecturer of political science at Simon Fraser University, with Canadian politics and democratic institutions among his areas of expertise, finds it “interesting” that at the time of Surrey’s last civic election the Safe Surrey Coalition was much larger “and very quickly, once people got in office, a number broke away from McCallum’s slate, and it suggests that there’s a looser amalgamation.
“When people actually get into the business of governing you find the loose ideas they had heading into the election don’t hang together as well as they thought, once it comes down to actually take some decisions,” Prest said.
“I think one way to describe Surrey’s politics is that these coalitions of voters exist almost in a different form during the election than in during the periods in between. People will join a known banner, might line up behind Mr. McCallum because it is a voice, a face, that is known to voters, so again it can catch voters eyes but there may not have been the same strong commitment to a coherent governing ideology.”
Prest said it seems like these civic slates “are very good vehicles for getting people elected, and making them more competitive, but they don’t have the same coherence when it comes to governing” as do political parties at the federal or provincial level.
Over the past several decades the voters of Surrey, as a municipality and then as a city, have had plenty of slates to chose from along our civic elections timeline, with the Surrey Voters Association, Surrey Municipal Electors, Surrey Non-Partisan Association, Surrey Civic Electors, Surrey Electors Team, Surrey First, Surrey Civic Coalition, and Safe Surrey Coalition among them.
Some were short lived, such as the trio of former Surrey First councillors – Bruce Hayne, Barbara Steele and Dave Woods – who left that slate to form Surrey Integrity Now, with Hayne as its mayoral candidate. The unfortunately acronym-ed SIN failed to defeat the dynastic Surrey First, enabling McCallum and the SSC to come up the middle.
While some slates have had a short shelf life, others were longstanding forces to be reckoned with. For example, in the 1990s Surrey was exclusively dominated by two slates – the NDP-tied Surrey Civic Electors (SCE) and the Surrey Electors Team (SET), which was typically pro-development.
Bob Bose, Surrey’s mayor from 1988 until 1996, when he was defeated by the SET’s Doug McCallum, served out his time as mayor leading the SCE, which had four votes on council. The SET had five, and a lion’s share of the city’s business in those years was determined by a 5-4 split.
This 5-4 voting split configuration is occurring on council today, but in the reverse with the Safe Surrey Coalition dominating council with five votes against Surrey First’s lone vote in Linda Annis, and the three independents Locke, Hundial and Pettigrew – at least until this latest new Surrey Connect slate arrives at the table.
Dianne Watts, who served as a SET councillor before parting ways over McCallum’s leadership and defeating McCallum for the mayor’s chair, founded the Surrey First slate in 2007. Surrey First then dominated city council until the 2018 election.
The last civic election, held in October 2018, saw an atypical number of slates vying for both council and school board seats: The Safe Surrey Coalition, Surrey First, Surrey Integrity Now, Proudly Surrey, People First, Progressive Sustainable Surrey, and the Independent Surrey Voter’s Association.
Of course civic slates are different from political parties at the federal and provincial levels, what with their party whips. A concern often voiced is that MPs and MLAs typically don’t have much of an independent voice and pretty much do what the party leadership tells them to do.
Here in Surrey, the same concern has been leveled at the remaining four Safe Surrey Coalition councillors – that they do the mayor’s bidding.
Prest maintains the rise of slates in civic politics, despite Surrey’s experience, “is the exception in Canadian politics, not the norm.
“It seems like most cities either discourage it or make it sort of a banner under anything rules. I think there’s a lot of places where it’s sort of informal, but still quite common, like, you don’t have people running on a single team but it’s sort of understood that even if they’re not under a single name that they would cooperate and they would see the world in similar ways.”
“It’s much looser and it’s informal, so you don’t have anything like the same kind of a whipped vote they do at a federal or provincial level.”
Meantime, it has been argued that slates tend to drown-out independent voices at the local government level.
“It can certainly make it a little more difficult for independents to break through,” Prest said.
“We’re seeing that very clearly in Vancouver – here we thought we had a significant change election this last year and it was supposed to be the year of the independents according to a lot of observers, which changes in fundraising rules and what-not, and yet it was very much more of the same in terms of who was actually elected – it was members of the established parties. So it gave them some advantage it terms of fundraising, but I think even more-so just in terms of familiarity in the eyes of voters.”