Pauline Greaves and Stuart Parker: Will the know-nothing populist wave break in Surrey?

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      By Pauline Greaves (PhD) and Stuart Parker (PhD)

      We are running in this election for the Proudly Surrey party, a broad coalition of people who have developed the most comprehensive and thought-out policy agenda in this election. Like many of the candidates running as independents and representing the smaller parties like People First, GreenVote, and Progressive Sustainable, we are angry at the hijacking of our city by the entrenched interests in Surrey First and its splinter party led by Coun. Bruce Hayne.

      Surrey residents, all of us, are entitled to be angry at the high-handed and dishonest practices of our current council.

      Reelecting Tom Gill and his team of say-anything political chameleons is a real danger to Surrey. It will mean a continuation of out-of-control development, an out-of-touch council that refuses to listen, massive underservicing—especially of seniors and kids—and a governing culture of buck-passing, grandstanding, and squandered opportunities. But reelecting the same crew to intensify the same problems is not the only risk or even the biggest one Surrey faces.

      An organization known as the Safe Surrey Coalition has reared its head in this election and, under the mercurial leadership of former mayor Doug McCallum, it is practising the same kind of dangerous, cynical populism that elected the Ford brothers in Ontario, François Legault in Quebec, and Donald Trump in the U.S. This is not just something we are saying because we are opposing candidates. It is because we are social scientists who have worked in B.C.’s university system, studying, researching, and teaching about North American society.

      We are not just disappointed, as candidates who wanted to engage in an honest contest of ideas; we are not just concerned, as Surrey residents, about what such a dangerous political force might do in control of our city; we are deeply worried, as scholars, about the rising tide of know-nothing populist extremism that is seizing hold of one North American jurisdiction after another.

      What McCallum’s third comeback attempt has in common with the Trump and Ford movements is, first and foremost, the repeated assertion of falsehoods not through misleading or deceptive argument but through repetition and a refusal to engage or acknowledge facts presented.

      This is exemplified by Safe Surrey’s transportation policies.

      McCallum is proposing to build a $4-billion SkyTrain system for $44 million. Rob Ford, similarly, promised Toronto residents that he would build them $40 billion in new subways with $10 million.

      McCallum’s plan for doing this is, in effect, to tear up the agreement with the federal government to invest $500 million in a street-level light-rail transit (LRT) system, tear up the agreement with the B.C. government to invest $900 million in LRT, and tear up an agreement with TransLink to invest $240 million.

      But what marks McCallum’s campaign as a cheap knock-off of know-nothing populism is that when he is asked how tearing up these agreements will produce a $4-billion SkyTrain, he either refuses to answer or flatly states falsehoods. One cannot ask how tearing up an agreement with Ottawa would make Justin Trudeau send Surrey more money because McCallum will not agree an agreement would be torn up or even that an agreement exists.

      Promising big-ticket items outside his personal control is a hallmark of the Trump style and one that we can see McCallum has been studying. To our surprise, on October 4, his party did not just promise to build the city a $4-billion SkyTrain while, at the same time, turning down all external funding for rapid transit. It also promised to immediately build and operate a third hospital for the city.

      This is undoubtedly a popular promise as Surrey desperately needs a new hospital but McCallum knows full-well that hospitals are part of a federal cost-shared program over which cities exercise not one iota of control. But rather than explaining how Safe Surrey could possibly deliver on this promise, their candidates moved to attack other candidates and parties, effectively foreclosing any possible follow-up questions.

      Know-nothing populism is not about right or left. It is about a kind of political discourse that shuts down critical thinking and rational dialogue, that creates a fog of confusion and negativity so as to more effectively bamboozle voters with what appear to be clear messages but are, in fact, carefully crafted nonsense.

      The attack that followed the hospital promise characterized a second feature of know-nothing populism: the politics of projection. In June, we released our policing platform, making us the first party to call for an end to the RCMP contract and a South Fraser Police Force. So naturally, we found ourselves coming under fire from Safe Surrey for stealing its policing policy, the very policy they lifted from us in August.

      Just as Doug Ford was quick to indict his opponents for having uncosted policies when he was the only candidate whose policies were and just as Donald Trump’s supporters were quick to claim Hillary Clinton was an agent of a foreign power and purveyor of sexual violence against women, McCallum’s party sows confusion by accusing opponents of malfeasance it has just committed.

      This can be enabled by mobilizing fundamentalist religious movements and figures to give a false sense of moral authority.

      For those who remember McCallum’s original seizure of power in Surrey in 1995 in an alliance with the right-wing leader of the Christian Heritage Party leader, Heather Stillwell, it should come as no surprise that Safe Surrey has renewed those alliances. It's currently fielding a candidate whose views are so far outside of the mainstream of people of faith that he routinely posts on social media about himself and his children being “under spiritual attack”, presumably by demons, and requiring immediate, urgent assistance.

      The final aspect of know-nothing populism is, of course, the false narrative of a leader challenging a corrupt elite when, in fact, that leader is part of that very elite.

      McCallum ran Surrey for a decade during which time he practised some of the very politics he now decries: shutting down public input and consultation, wealthy developers calling the shots, failing to provide services and infrastructure in developing neighbourhoods, refusing to end or even review the RCMP contract, and repeatedly attacking the Agricultural Land Reserve.

      Just like the Ford brothers who had controversial track records as elected officials, McCallum is using a know-nothing populist style to keep his own past actions and record off the table.

      We are worried because this kind of politics comes from a place of entitled resentment and anger. Whoever McCallum was in the past, whatever his legitimate achievements and record, the man we are seeing today is practising a dangerous politics that debases the discourse for us all. Let us not lose four precious years in making Surrey a better place by succumbing to the ugly, extremist wave coming from the east and south.

      Pauline Greaves teaches writing and management at the Langara School of Business. As a criminologist and doctor of educational administration, she has written and lectured on the sociology of leadership and the complex relationships between social movements and the law. Stuart Parker teaches international studies and history at Simon Fraser University. As a historian and doctor of the study of religion, he is currently under contract to produce an intellectual biography of W. Cleon Skousen, the extreme right activist acknowledged as an intellectual mentor by Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Glenn Beck.