By Jeff Shantz
Astroturf. It is a word used in politics that describes campaigns that are presented as growing organically from the community but are actually driven, and funded, by more powerful interests operating behind the scenes.
The notion of astroturf is a play on the artificial (turf) nature of such campaigns when compared with the grassroots community movements they aim to imitate. The right wing Tea Party movement in the U.S.—appearing grassroots but funded and organized by wealthy Republican donor groups (such as the infamous Koch brothers)—is one example.
The local campaign for a referendum on policing in Surrey, calling itself Surrey Police Vote, is giving off a very strong scent of astroturf. And that scent trail is leading right back to the National Police Federation, the association representing RCMP members.
The NPF launched and has been using a dedicated website, www.surreyssayonpolicing.com, to oppose the new Surrey Police Service and to mobilize the public against the transition, including posting form letters for submissions to council against that transition. Without openly connecting themselves with the referendum campaign, they have put out their own statements, such as this: “The National Police Federation is calling on the City and the Province to finally give voters the final say on this costly, unnecessary, and disorganized transition."
It is past time for the NPF to be completely open about their role in pushing the referendum and to show residents of Surrey—and, indeed, of the province—what they have spent on this campaign in terms of resources and dollars.
The professionals and the referendum
The referendum campaign is already underway, with the first person signing up at a public-relations event on August 17. Surrey Police Vote scheduled signing events in Holland Park on August 21 and on August 22 at Goldstone Park. All completed signature sheets must be in Elections B.C. hands by November 15.
The Surrey Police Vote’s campaign strategist, Bill Tieleman, is listed by the Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists of B.C. as none other than ”consultant lobbyist” for the National Police Federation.
According to the ORL website, Tieleman’s “specific topics of lobbying communications” are “engagement with B.C. MLAs regarding the on-going police transition in Surrey as it relates to the B.C. Police Act with the purpose of providing information and recommendations to guide future decisions”. The “intended outcomes” are designated as “development, establishment, amendment or termination of any program, policy, directive or guideline of the government of British Columbia or a provincial entity”.
On its website, Surrey Police Vote lists an address where people can send donations. Wouldn’t you know, that address—1770 West 7th Avenue, Suite 305—is the same as listed by the ORL for one Bill Tieleman and his West Star Communications. Would a grassroots movement take their donations to the office of an NPF lobbyist?
This is a good get for the NPF. Tieleman has played the referendum game before—and won. He worked a successful campaign against the HST in 2011. And Tieleman is not alone. He is joined by campaign manager Brock Stephenson, another longtime political operative who was campaign manager for Conservative Party candidate Ronald Leung in the 2011 federal election. Leung lost to Kenedy Stewart in Burnaby-Douglas.
Neither Tieleman nor Stephenson are low-priced beginners. They are not amateurs. They are not even Surrey residents. So how much are they being paid to run this “community” campaign? And by whom? Is this another part of paid lobbying by other means on behalf of RCMP members? The public should have answers to all of these questions. And the answers should be part of any reporting on the Surrey policing referendum.
This is about honesty and transparency. It does not suggest that either campaign strategist is doing anything improper. They are professional lobbyists/campaigners. And that is precisely the issue for a campaign that wants to appear grassroots and appeal to the grassroots but is not.
Changing the rules
Now they’re even trying to change the rules and get a regional, rather than provincial, referendum. In order for the campaign to be successful, according to the existing legislation, they must get 10 percent of registered voters in all 87 BC ridings to sign an official copy of the petition by November 15 if they are to bring the matter to a vote. This means that, numerically, the campaign will need approximately 315,000 signatures. About 283,800 of those signatures will have to come from voters who live outside of Surrey.
Recognizing that this is virtually impossible, the professional campaigners are looking to move the goalposts. Stephenson notes in his statement that “while the Initiative petition legislation does not contemplate a regional petition, the B.C. Referendum Act does allow the B.C. cabinet to order a regional referendum on any issue—and could easily do so on Surrey policing.”
For his part, Tieleman has said that instead of a provincewide effort they will be focusing almost entirely on Surrey. They have signed up about 250 registered canvassers so far who will be working Surrey.
Unfortunately, public presentations of the debates over policing in Surrey have been contained within a limited duality. Supporters of the RCMP or the Surrey Police Service express concerns over the cost of the force they oppose but seem entirely untroubled by the high costs of the force they are boosting. So the discussions of costs on either side come across as rather disingenuous or entirely partisan.
Excluded in all of this are the voices of people in Surrey calling for defunding of police and a redirection of public resources toward social services, community programs, health supports, harm reduction, and housing. The numerous media reports do not include commentary from policing critics such as the Defund 604 network, a real grassroots movement that has members who live and work in Surrey.
Maybe instead of astroturf campaigns for a referendum (or support for either the RCMP or Surrey Police) we could have real public consultation on community resourcing beyond policing. Perhaps a rethinking of public safety itself. Maybe a people's budget, not one driven by police associations and their lobbyists.
Too much money has already been wasted on this policing fiasco. We do not need more public money to be spent on a self-serving astroturf referendum campaign by the NPF, presented as something it is not, a grassroots movement. We Surrey residents deserve a break.