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Rob Shaw: Voters want action – that should concern the BC NDP

Saturday’s municipal election results offer two key takeaways for provincial politicians
Incumbent Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart lost to ABC candidate Ken Sim on Saturday. Sim's ABC party won a sweeping victory in the latest election.

B.C. voters expressed clear frustration with the lack of progress on major issues in Saturday’s municipal election, sending a message about their desire for change that is sure to ripple through the corridors of the provincial legislature.

As many as 37 incumbent mayors were ousted by voters in towns and cities across British Columbia.

The most notable were in B.C.'s two largest cities, where Kennedy Stewart lost to Ken Sim in Vancouver and Doug McCallum to Brenda Locke in Surrey.

But the same story played out in municipalities both large and small across the province, including Langford, Powell River, Saanich, Williams Lake, Kelowna, White Rock and Cranbrook, to name a few.

Established mayors and councillors found themselves on the receiving end of a grumpy electorate tired of excuses on issues like crime, homelessness and housing.

Voters clearly wanted action. They were willing to take risks, and eject familiar faces, in order to get it. If they felt any loyalty to the elected officials who helped guide them through the COVID-19 crisis, it didn’t translate into actual votes at the ballot boxes.

It’s hard to transpose municipal elections onto provincial politics. Nonetheless, this should concern the BC NDP.

As a government, it has made an art form out of spinning and blustering through major issues in the past 12 months, appearing to give the illusion of progress on key files where very little actually exists.

On street disorder, crime, overdoses and health care, its main response has been to blame Ottawa, stall for time and fearmonger that its opponents would somehow do even worse if put in charge.

None of those tactics worked Saturday for municipal mayors, who faced mini-referendums on the same issues and courted little sympathy from cranky citizenry at their attempts to blame higher levels of government for the complex problems seen in daily life.

Even worse for the NDP, the main issues that ended the careers of so many municipal politicians – affordable housing and appearing to be soft on crime – fall squarely under the purview of the provincial government. Nobody appears particularly pleased with the job this government is doing in those areas, according to repeated public opinion polls, and now a municipal election.

There are two main takeaways for NDP leadership candidate David Eby, who is still widely expected to replace John Horgan as premier in the next few weeks.

The first is that it’s the wrong time to call a snap election.

Eby has said publicly he had no intention of doing so – but so do all politicians (including Horgan in 2020) while they secretly plot such things behind the scenes.

It would be wiser for Eby to stick to his guns, at least for now.

The NDP has accumulated significant baggage over the last year, it is clearly out of step with the public mood (as evidenced this summer with the Royal BC Museum disaster), and if it threw itself to the whims of the same ornery electorate that punished so many incumbents on Saturday – well, the NDP could easily find itself out of power.

The second takeaway is that it’s a good time to swing big on some new policies.

A public that votes for change is looking for big, bold promises from a new set of faces. Eby could be that new face as premier. But he’ll have to come to the table with a set of aggressive policies to wipe away the NDP’s last year of complacency, arrogance and drift.

What does that look like?

Well his housing platform is a good place to start. It’s an ambitious mix of new taxes, incentives, penalties, partnerships and sweeping changes to density in urban areas. He’ll need similarly bold proposals for health care, mental health, addictions, crime and street disorder.

That kind of course correction is likely to step on a few toes within the existing Horgan cabinet. And there will be pressure to keep the B.C. budget balanced, to combat old fears that voters think New Democrats are poor managers of the provincial purse.

But the lesson from the municipal election seems clear: More action, less talk. Change, or get out of the way. More than three dozen mayors found that out that the hard way Saturday night. We’ll see what the BC NDP learns from their mistakes.


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.

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