Forget Vancouver, B.C.’s Future Will Be Decided By The Suburbs

With big city problems creeping into the land of cul-de-sacs and single-family homes, suburban swing ridings are set to determine the outcome of the provincial election.

British Columbia’s 2017 provincial election will not be decided in Vancouver or Victoria, where the pipeline-hating urbanites often vote NDP or Green. Nor will it be decided in Kelowna or Fort St. John, where the latte-disdaining pro-LNG residents steadily vote right.

The election will be won in places like the Pantry in Guildford Town Centre. On a busy Saturday, the mall buzzes like an electrical transformer and cars and minivans circle the maze-like parking lots. Two Surrey parents, who helped lead a months-long campaign to get more money from Premier Christy Clark for their public schools, are sitting over popcorn shrimp and fries, assessing which party they think is the most likely to help their cause.

The NDP MLAs listened to their presentation, yes, say Lisa Garner and Karen Tan. But their promise to get rid of all the portable classrooms in just four months wasn’t realistic. And the education critic guy, Rob Fleming, faded away from meetings for reasons they still don’t understand.

The Liberal MLAs, that was a different story. Sure, there was one guy who got all defensive and tried to make it sound like there was no problem with having 7,000 Surrey kids in portables. But Peter Fassbender and Stephanie Cadieux, both cabinet ministers, they really listened. “Those MLAs now understand our problems,” says Tan, an accountant who helped analyze the local school budget and long-range capital plan. Garner, who runs a before- and after-school daycare in her home and works with people with disabilities, adds another level of analysis: “I think they did understand, but we didn’t have the right group of people before. And I think they paid attention because of the number of voters.” Then Clark came through, just five months before the election, with $217 million dedicated to building new schools and additions.

Of course she did. Those Surrey ridings are key. Fassbender won his seat in Surrey–Fleetwood by only 200 votes in 2013, against the NDP’s Jagrup Brar. This time around he’ll be facing Brar again, and the boundaries of his riding have been redrawn, not to his advantage.

It’s not just Surrey that will see hard skirmishing. Rumblings of discontent have risen to high decibels in Maple Ridge. Coquitlam. Burnaby. Richmond. Those growing suburbs east and south of Vancouver are uniquely poised to see swings among their voters. They’re the places where urban problems like homelessness and drug addiction, poverty and immigrant enclaves, unaffordable housing, crime and traffic congestion have migrated steadily in the last couple of decades, while social services—schools, health care, transit—haven’t come anywhere near to coping with the growth. Meanwhile, tides of newcomers have arrived since 2013. These new immigrants, downsizing boomers, young couples driven out of the city by high prices, and job seekers from Alberta and Ontario weren’t around to vote last time. Their political affiliations may be very different from what has been the norm.

“Younger professionals are moving out , bringing progressive values,”

“There have been demographic changes out in the suburbs. Younger professionals are moving out, bringing progressive values,” says Hamish Telford, a political science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley and an Abbotsford resident. Those new suburbanites are more impatient about the problems. Telford’s own son has been going to school in a portable for two years because of the lack of money for new buildings, even while the area booms. South of Fraser residents are angry about having to pay a toll on the Port Mann Bridge and possibly a new one coming up for the Pattullo Bridge, while transit options continue to disappoint. And the increase in housing costs in the suburbs have been, in some cases, even more dramatic than in Vancouver. “The property assessments in Abbotsford are up more than 35 percent, which has made housing much less affordable,” says Telford.

Then there’s the fact that the suburbs are at another important crossroads. One analysis of the 2012 American presidential election by analyst Dave Troy showed that voter behaviour followed density. A place with more than 800 people per square mile (in Canadian terms, 308 people per square kilometre) was significantly more likely to vote Democrat. One with fewer than that was significantly more likely to vote Republican. That same dynamic played out again in 2016 and Canadian federal elections show similar patterns, according to a study by Vancouver demographer Andy Yan.

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The suburbs, especially the newer ones that are seeing townhouses and condos sprout just as fast as single-family homes, are right at the tipping point. “The more dense an area becomes, the more likely it is going to vote like East Vancouver,” says Greg Lyle, whose company, Innovative Research, has done polling for years for conservative parties.

But will that make those urbanizing suburbanites vote NDP or Green? That depends on what they are the most emotional about, says Lyle.

Yes, suburban voters are running on high levels of cortisol. But the Liberals have been doing plenty to allay that. Economists might think moves like the interest-free loans for down payments are fiscally ridiculous, but polling shows that people love them—especially in the suburbs, where they’re the most likely to qualify. Yes, they’re anxious about schools, but as Lisa Garner and Karen Tan demonstrate in Surrey, that anxiety can be eased with what looks like a solid plan to invest in them.

Or the NDP could play on their anxieties by reminding them of how many times the Liberals have promised improvements and then abandoned them post-election.

“This is a government in power for 16 years,” says Lyle. A few weeks of bad news for the Liberals just before the election are all it would take to put the NDP in front.

And then, of course, there’s a third, distant option.

“Suburban voters are not going to vote Green for the environment. What defines them is the car,” he says. “But they could vote Green as a ‘pox on both your houses.’”

Off to the Races

Watch these ridings for a nail-biting contest.

Maple Ridge–Pitt MeadowsDoug Bing won for the Liberals in 2013 by only 620 votes. He faces the NDP’s Lisa Beare, a popular school trustee in a part of the suburbs where development, homelessness, drug overdose deaths and traffic mayhem are on the rise. Expect a fierce battle.

Vancouver–FraserviewWith its winding streets and single-family homes, it’s a little slice of the suburbs right here in the city. Suzanne Anton won it for the Liberals in 2013 by only 546 votes. Popular former city councillor George Chow is trying to edge her out for the NDP.

Coquitlam–MaillardvilleFormer city councillor Selina Robinson won this riding for the NDP by only 41 votes, after a recount. The Liberals will be fighting hard to take it back with small-business owner Steve Kim.

Check back for more on the provincial election—part of our May 2017 issue!