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NDP Leader John Horgan arrives for a election campaign stop in Surrey, B.C., Sept. 23, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Three days into a B.C. election campaign marked by pandemic precautions that will limit face-to-face engagement with voters, the leaders of the NDP and Liberals have each already spent a day in Surrey.

The visits reflect Surrey’s status as the second-most populous city in the province, but also its pivotal role as a battleground, where the NDP and Liberals have traded seats in past elections.

“It’s already hot,” Anita Huberman, chief executive officer of the Surrey Board of Trade, said of visits in the early days of the campaign by NDP Leader John Horgan and Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson. “This is an important battleground in B.C.”

Mr. Horgan has called an Oct. 24 election, a year ahead of the October, 2021, ballot scheduled under the province’s fixed-election law, declaring he needs a stable majority government to lead the province during the pandemic.

His move, despite an agreement to govern with the support of the Green Party, has prompted criticism about playing politics during a time of crisis. Mr. Horgan has suggested the minority government arrangement with the Greens was becoming unstable.

On Wednesday, the focus turned to Surrey as Mr. Horgan sought votes to build that stability, and the BC Liberals looked for support to return to government for the first time since 2017.

Surrey is distinct from other parts of B.C. that have traditionally leaned toward one party or the other, Gerald Baier, a University of British Columbia political scientist, said in an interview.

In 2017, the NDP won six of nine Surrey seats, a gain of three as they defeated three BC Liberal cabinet ministers. “There’s still a little bit of room that makes campaigning worth it in some of those Surrey ridings,” he said.

The NDP, he said, scored big in Surrey during the 2017 campaign with a promise to remove tolls on the Port Mann Bridge between Coquitlam and Surrey 33 years earlier than planned. “That was the secret sauce for them in 2017.”

In 2020, Ms. Huberman of the Surrey Board of Trade said, a key issue is the plan by Mayor Doug McCallum and council to replace the RCMP as the city’s police force with a newly created municipal force. Other issues include a long-term vision for transportation beyond Mr. McCallum’s push for SkyTrain expansion.

During an appearance with his party’s Surrey candidates, Mr. Horgan touted plans by the NDP to build a new hospital in the city. He accused Mr. Wilkinson, as citizens' services minister in 2014, of selling land for a planned hospital to a BC Liberal donor.

Flanked by his candidates, Mr. Horgan said, “Let’s just check for the record. What did Andrew Wilkinson do? Sold the land and issued press releases."

By contrast, he said his MLAs were integral to a government move to launch a plan to a new hospital.

“This is not about promises. This is about delivery, and that’s what we have been doing in Surrey for the past three years.”

Mr. Wilkinson, in a news conference later in the day, noted the Liberals spent about $700-million when in power for an expansion of health care infrastructure in Surrey.

On policing, Mr. Horgan said his solicitor-general has worked with the Surrey mayor, council and the community on the change, but managing the file is the responsibility of local leaders.

"This is a divisive issue. Mayor McCallum opened up a hornet’s nest and Mayor McCallum is responsible for it,” he said.

Mr. Wilkinson said NDP management of the issue has left Surrey divided, and there’s a need to rebuild trust so a “sensible decision” can be made on what to do. Without providing details, he said a BC Liberal government would address the file in a methodical way.

The BC Greens did not reply to a query about their plans in Surrey.

At dissolution, there were 41 NDP members of the 87-seat legislature, 41 Liberals, two Greens, two independents and one seat vacant.

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