Last Thursday’s Surrey Regional Economic Summit was a success, and protests against the appearance of former U.S. president George W. Bush were also a success.
What is less clear is whether the controversial nature of the summit’s keynote speakers will hurt Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts at the polls next month.
Almost all that members of the public know about the appearance of Bush and former president Bill Clinton at the summit is summarized in a photo of the two of them, wearing identical ties and posing with Watts. She has clearly been placed at the centre of the summit with the two ex-presidents.
The summit is a joint initiative of the city and the Business Council of B.C. We are told it is funded through corporate sponsorship and admission fees. It cost $600 to attend this year.
From the few bits and pieces which have emerged from the ex-presidents’ talk – which was closed to the media (other than media sponsors) – it appears they covered a lot of the ground that had been expected of them. They spoke of the challenges they faced while in office; of the ability of the U.S. to bounce back from some economically challenging years and of the cocoon that all presidents must live in today.
Bush may have hit on one issue which is of most interest to Surrey residents and businesses – the challenges of crossing the border.
“What’s thickening of the border?” he asked.
He was the president who brought in the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Clinton, on the other hand, said “maybe we did overdo it.”
Both ex-presidents seemed to agree that the U.S. and Canada must maintain their trading relationship, and that getting goods and people across the border in a timely fashion is a key part of keeping the economies of both countries humming. Trade must keep moving and the Canada-U.S. relationship must be a good one.
This was the fourth such summit, and they have become important gatherings of business people from across B.C. They have most definitely helped put Surrey on the map as an economic destination.
There were many other good speakers, including brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger of Free the Children, and some top economic reporters from the Wall Street Journal and The Economist.
While the choice of Bush as a speaker was a controversial one, and led directly to the protests, it is always worthwhile to hear what ex-presidents have to say. Having Bush and Clinton on one stage is a tremendous coup for organizers, one that will be hard to top at any future summit.
Yet Watts is in the midst of a re-election campaign, and many voters with little interest in the summit will remember that she hosted Bush in Surrey. That won’t be a vote-getter.
Her advantage in the campaign is that opposition to her continuing in the mayor’s chair is weak and disorganized. There are now six challengers (one has dropped out) – but none have the name recognition, campaign organization, money or issues to bring her down.
She has the same competitive advantage when it comes to her support for the two-cent gas tax increase and property tax boosts for TransLink, which are also controversial with many Surrey residents. None of her challengers have the ability to take her vote on that issue and defeat her as mayor, and she knows it.
However, the reaction to Bush’s visit shows that some of her lustre is fading, as happens to all leaders.
If she chooses to run again in 2014, and a serious challenger emerges, she may well fall victim to the nine-year curse that felled both of her immediate predecessors.
Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.