Signups in Surrey raise eyebrows in Abbott camp

Are urban Liberals engineering failure of party vote reform?

George Abbott.

George Abbott.

A huge influx of newly minted BC Liberals in Surrey has raised suspicions that urban elements in the party may yet scuttle a plan to switch to a new weighted voting system designed to be more fair to rural regions.

Shuswap MLA George Abbott admits his leadership campaign will be in jeopardy if the proposed reform is defeated at a special vote Feb. 12.

“The prospects of my election, I think, would be diminished if the new system is not adopted,” he said.

Instead, the one-member-one-vote system would remain in place and the votes of tens of thousands of new members recruited mainly by rivals Kevin Falcon, Mike de Jong and Christy Clark may be decisive in electing the new leader Feb. 26.

Abbott said he understands the party membership has more than doubled to 84,000 so far and while his campaign has signed up some, it’s “nothing in comparison” to the numbers being recruited by the other contenders.

At least 10,000 have been signed up in just four Surrey ridings.

“I was quite staggered,” he said of the soaring membership tally. “We are certainly trying to follow the growth in the numbers to understand what is going on.”

All candidates have pledged their support of the weighted vote system, which ensures sparsely populated rural ridings have an equal say with urban ones.

But there is discontent about it among some in the party.

Former Surrey MLA Dr. Gulzar Cheema says the change is unfair to urban ridings that sign up lots of new Liberals, because their votes will be watered down by the points system that ensures equal weight is given to just a few dozen members in a rural riding.

The reform of the party constitution requires a two-thirds majority to pass.

“I’ve heard from some people who have suggested there will be a very small amount of opposition to the changes,” Abbott said. “But I just don’t know.”

Political analyst David Schreck said he doesn’t believe the urban candidates or their lieutenants are sincere about supporting the voting reform.

“It appears between a quarter and a third of all new membership signups for the Liberals are in Surrey,” he said.

“You’ve got to ask yourself: if you’ve worked to sign up 10,000 new members in Surrey, would you support a weighted voting system?”

If the reform passes, Schreck said, the Surrey members – who represent more than 20 per cent of the members province-wide – would control less than five per cent of the votes in selecting a new leader and premier.

“All of their work goes down the drain if the weighted vote system goes through.”

Schreck also questioned how many new memberships will arrive on Friday, the cut off date which leaves just three weeks for Liberal officials to verify new members.

Kwantlen Polytechnic University political scientist Shinder Purewal said he’s also heard speculation the reform of the party constitution may fail.

Abbott would stand no chance of winning in that scenario, he said.

“It won’t surprise me if one third of the members come from Surrey ridings,” he said.

Falcon has strong local connections, De Jong is focusing on Surrey and Abbotsford and Clark also has “her troops on the ground in Surrey.”

Purewal said it’s an impressive turnaround for a party that was “almost dying” a few months ago.

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