Burnaby South by-election

Burnaby South has been in the news a lot lately. Burnaby? In the news? Not something we used read very often, but Burnaby residents have gotten used to the spotlight lately. Whether it’s Kinder Morgan in the north, or Jagmeet Singh in the south, Burnaby’s ridings have been the focal points of several major news stories for 2018 and 2019.

What everyone who follows federal politics is talking about lately is how Jagmeet Singh will fare in his bid to gain a seat and become an MP as he deals with turmoil within the NDP. Win or lose Mr. Singh will face serious headwinds…but lose and he’s finished. Will the voters of Burnaby give him his victory and a chance to lead the NDP into the next general election in October?

Burnaby voters have been reliably NDP for over 40 years. “All Burnaby” ridings (that is, ridings entirely within Burnaby, not split over city boundaries) have gone NDP for over 40 years. Mr. Singh and the NDP clearly are hoping for a repeat of the voting pattern in October.

There is, however danger in this. Burnaby is changing and the 2015 general election proved that. In that election Burnaby North Seymour went Liberal and in Burnaby South the incumbent Kennedy Stewart narrowly hung on to best me by 547 votes. But the larger gamble the NDP and Mr Singh are taking is assuming that Burnaby residents are the same as they were 40 years go (they aren’t) and thinking they will readily accept a candidate who parachuted in, with no community connections.

Burnaby residents want an MP who knows the community and understand them. I remember distinctly that the most common response to our team in 2015, an election in which we doorknocked for over a year prior to Election Day, was “No one has knocked on my door since Svend was our MP.” “Svend” is, of course, Svend Robinson, who served Burnaby for 25 years as MP. Like him or hate him, Svend was someone who understood Burnaby, worked tirelessly to be present locally as an MP and develop personal relationships with his constituents. Svend’s rival at the time, Bill Cunningham (Liberal) and successor (Bill Siksay) also had deep, long standing relationships with Burnaby. Burnaby misses this. It is no doubt one of the key reasons our election campaign did so well in 2015, despite the entrenched NDP history. Local wins here. The fact that recent NDP representative Kennedy Stewart resigned as MP and immediately began touting that he was from Vancouver and always wanted the job of Vancouver Mayor has only deepened the desire of Burnaby residents for a long-term MP intent on local priorities and issues.

What can we expect this by-election? Predictions are always somewhat of a fool’s errand in politics, as the Burnaby South by-election has made evident. At the outset my opinion, bluntly put, was that Jagmeet Singh should have lost Burnaby South decisively. However, current events have conspired to make that loss seem unlikely.

Due to the close race in 2015, the story everyone (sensibly) made was that this would be a tight race between the Liberals and the NDP. However, the former Liberal candidate, Karen Wang, was forced to resign due to racial comments she made on WeChat regarding Mr Singh. This botched campaign start, followed by the scramble to replace her has hurt Liberal credibility locally. Now, the national Liberal scene is being shaken by the SNC Lavelin affair. Does this mean the Liberals are cooked in Burnaby South? No, but they have made their lives significantly more difficult than it ought to have been.

One party not being talked about at all are the Conservatives in Burnaby. The Conservatives had flown under the radar in this by-election despite strong results in 2011 and even 2015, given the circumstances. In my mind they were a dark horse contender until the People’s Party of Canada was founded. This long shot is now essentially non-existent.

The PPC is running an ostensibly strong candidate in former local school trustee candidate from 2018 Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson. Ms Thompson has been controversial for her anti-SOGI comments and stance on similar issues, yet still received over 15,000 votes in the 2018 municipal election. While campaign signs don’t mean anything at the ballot box, it’s hard not to notice the disproportionately high amount of PPC signs around Burnaby, given the party is supposed to almost be a fringe joke nationally. If Ms Thompson can rally her supporters from 2018, I would watch for the PPC to seriously surprise people and perhaps even see Burnaby South legitimize the PPC as a minor party. Wouldn’t that be an irony?

Jagmeet Singh meanwhile continues to be at best an unknown, enigmatic figure for most Burnaby residents. He talks in bland platitudes, doesn’t have a clear stance on anything and equivocates when asked direct questions. At his first press conference he claimed to be “All in on Burnaby.” He isn’t. His strategy seems to be “Burnaby will vote NDP no matter what.” Past that, it’s hard to see any notable impact he has made on the community or its residents.

In the end, despite his lack of connection to the riding and lack of understanding as to what makes Burnaby tick, I foresee Mr Singh and the NDP pulling this one out on the basis of history. The Liberals did themselves no favours in the run up to or first half of the by-election and simply have too much ground to make up. The Conservatives will be split by the PPC and fade away.

So despite all the attention on Burnaby South there will probably be few surprises except for the no one saw coming: Burnaby goes NDP again and legitimizes the PPC in the process. It’s always interesting in BC politics.

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