The BC NDP government is stalling for time on Surrey policing, as it struggles to figure out what is true amidst all the political rhetoric flying around in the debate over the future of the city’s police force.
Solicitor General Mike Farnworth put on a clinic in political tap dancing at the legislature Thursday, trying mightily for over 10 minutes to commit to as little as possible on a decision that his ministry has been struggling with for months.
Faced with wildly different information from the Surrey Police Service, RCMP and City of Surrey over the cost, staffing and mechanics of cancelling the transition to a municipal police force, Farnworth’s ministry has gone back to the drawing board with a series of detailed requests for information from everyone.
Ultimately, by law, it’s his call what happens. He brushed off suggestions the province might be better served by hiring an independent auditor to dig down into all the conflicting information.
“The work being done in my ministry is doing just that, to look at what is accurate, where are the gaps in Surrey’s plan, where are the gaps in the RCMP plan, and get to the actual realistic issues that have been identified that need further information,” said Farnworth.
The NDP government considers Surrey a key battleground to maintaining power and winning the next election. Four cabinet ministers hold ridings there. The party’s default position is to do whatever will make local voters happy, in a bid to maintain its hold on six of nine seats.
For a while, that looked like agreeing to the new Surrey council’s request to reverse former mayor Doug McCallum’s bid to abandon the RCMP and create a new police force. After all, it was the dominant issue in last fall’s municipal election, and the pro-RCMP side won more votes.
But then new Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke abruptly declared this month that there could be an average $1,200 per household tax increase ($7,700 per business) if the province doesn’t give the city what it wants and cancel the transition to the municipal force.
If her goal was to bully the NDP government into a decision, it backfired. New Democrats were aghast at the idea they might somehow get blamed for a 55 per cent tax hike in the most important political region in the province, effectively torpedoing their chances at re-election.
Farnworth pumped the brakes.
The two sides in the debate agree on almost nothing. They’ve split so many hairs on issues like sunk costs, termination timelines, contractual obligations, staffing quotas, HR and equipment that it is virtually impossible for the public to figure out who is telling the truth. The Surrey police chief is accusing the mayor of misleading the public, the union is warning that its members won’t join the RCMP, the RCMP is accusing Surrey police of being unprofessional, and so on. It is a total mess.
“From the City of Surrey, we are seeking more information on details regarding Surrey Police Service demobilization, and the number of RCMP members required to restaff,” said Farnworth.
“From the RCMP, we are seeking information on areas such as the number of RCMP officers required to restaff and anticipated growth within the RCMP.
“From the Surrey Police Service, we are seeking more information on strategies for the remaining areas of work towards becoming the police of jurisdiction.”
The transition from the RCMP to a municipal police force in Surrey was already overwhelmingly complex when it was first proposed several years ago. The proposal to halt that in mid-stream, and reverse course back to the RCMP, makes it several orders of magnitude more difficult.
“I would suggest this is probably the largest and most complex transition in terms of policing that we've seen in the country,” said Farnworth.
“It’s not like putting a switch off and on. It’s very complex, because you’ve got all the work that’s been done to date, you’ve got all the human resource issues, you don’t just transition back and say, ‘Oh, you know, in a couple of weeks we’ll [be] back to what it was.”
Farnworth offered no hints Thursday at whether the delay for more information could take weeks, months or even a year.
“I understand the need for more information, but what is expected from the minister today was at least some timelines,” said Opposition BC Liberal critic Trevor Halford, the MLA for Surrey-White Rock.
“There are RCMP members, there are Surrey police members, that are out there every single day protecting our community, and they're going home with that uncertainty and they deserve an answer on when that will be finalized.”
He called the delays “absolutely ridiculous.”
Mayor Locke attempted to ratchet up the pressure even further, accusing Farnworth and his ministry staff of essentially living in an ivory tower in Victoria and wasting her community’s time.
“There’s a delta between the people that work in Victoria, across the other side of the pond, and the people that have their feet on the ground,” said Locke.
Meanwhile, the community waits.
“This continued delay in decision making by the BC government holds Surrey as an economic hostage because economic investment decisions are being delayed without knowing what the future holds,” tweeted Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman.
The BC NDP is going to be used as a punching bag by everyone involved in the Surrey police issue while it pauses to get a better read on who is telling the truth. Still, short-term criticism is better than charging into a long-term mistake on Surrey policing. The NDP needs to recalculate the political ramifications of this evolving mess. A wrong move here could very well cost the party its chance at re-election.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.