Abbotsford West candidates spar on Highway 1, light rail, housing and snap election

NDP’s Rai declines to defend his party’s decision to trigger a snap election

The future of transportation in the Fraser Valley and the NDP government’s decision to call an election led to the most engaging moments of Tuesday’s all-candidates debate for the Abbotsford West riding.

The meeting was held over Zoom, and jointly sponsored by the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce, Fraser Valley Real Estate Board, and Fraser Valley Indo-Canadian Business Association.

To watch this or others all-candidate forums, voters can go to the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page. Videos of the Abbotsford West and Abbotsford-Mission meetings are expected to be posted Wednesday. A virtual all-candidates forum will be held Thursday. Residents can sign up on the chamber’s website to watch on Zoom, or can view a recording of the video afterwards on the chamber’s website.

Asked about plans to manage growth in the region, candidates pointed to the need to make it easier for people to get around.

RELATED: Final candidate list for Abbotsford ridings revealed

BC Liberal Michael de Jong took aim at the NDP’s lack of action on widening Highway 1, calling it a “parking lot,” and saying plans were in place to widen it three years ago, when the NDP took office. Conservative Michael Henshall agreed, using the same description, but telling de Jong that he and his party are also to blame for the “fiasco” during their years in office.

Later in the meeting, Preet Rai, the NDP’s candidate in the riding, said Highway 1 was one of his three top priorities for the region, along with seniors’ care and health care. But he never explained what, exactly, his party would do to address congestion on the main thoroughfare.

Only later, after the meeting had concluded, did the NDP amend its online platform to correct an error in which they had promised to widen Fraser Highway instead of, as intended, Highway 1 by 2026.

RELATED: BC NDP corrects platform & promises to widen Highway 1, not Fraser Highway

The NDP government has launched a study of transportation in the Fraser Valley, but again it was candidates from other parties who stressed the need to bring some form of light rail to Abbotsford.

De Jong and the Green’s Kevin Eastwood each mentioned rail as one of the top priorities if they were to become MLA.

“We’ve got a very diverse country and there are a lot of newcomers to Canada, so I think projects like transit, rail for the valley, increased bus service are really effective ways to ensure that everyone in our community can enjoy the freedom to move around, to visit local businesses,” Eastwood said.

De Jong said bringing SkyTrain to Abbotsford is unlikely to be affordable, but that a light-rail tie-in with SkyTrain should be prioritized.

“The time has come to move beyond conceptual discussions and look at how we can get light rail and transportation on the south side of the river out to Abby and beyond,” he said.

Henshall concurred, saying light rail “needs to be done now.”

Three of the four participants in the virtual debate – Eastwood, de Jong and Rai – were familiar with each other, having all run in the same riding three years ago. And while that meeting in 2017 saw de Jong speak about his party’s successes and warn about the NDP’s inability to manage an economy, the tables were turned for Tuesday’s meeting.

Rai spent most of his available time stressing his party’s record over the past three years in improving social services while keeping the economy running and the budget balanced until COVID-19 hit.

“Fiscal and economic performance has been better under the NDP than the BC Liberals,” Rai claimed.

Rai said the NDP’s work to build thousands of new social housing units, cap rental increases and implement a speculation tax were helping those struggling with the cost of living.

De Jong, though, said more needs to be done to help expedite the building of new homes, including, if necessary, enacting legislation to require municipalities to speed up the approval process.

Henshall regularly hit out at the “fiscal and social mismanagement” of governments led by both major parties, while stressing the need for “personal responsibility.”

The amiable back-and-forth between candidates concluded with de Jong pointedly asking Rai to explain why the NDP felt the need to call an election.

“The thing people have asked me the most in the past two weeks is: Why are we having an election in the middle of a global pandemic when we can’t even gather?” he said. He then asked Rai if he was embarrassed about his leader’s decision to send voters to the polls.

Each candidate had been given four rebuttal cards to spar with one another. But Rai, who had three cards, declined to answer the question and defend the decision to call an election.

De Jong had also asked the Eastwood for his thoughts, and the second-time Green candidate took the baton and ran with it, saying the snap election significantly disadvantaged candidates without extensive political experience.

“The cynical viewpoint would be that this election was called with the aim of securing a majority government,” he said. “But the popularity of this recent government has been working with a party in opposition and I think being more accountable to the people of B.C. than we ever had.

“An election right now, for myself, was very difficult and there are these all-star candidates that are being called in but we’ve missed an opportunity as British Columbians to include those candidates who need more support or who are new to politics who come from different backgrounds to bring more diversity and new ideas – to have younger candidates running. Calling a snap election in the middle of a pandemic when people are really struggling, I think, presents an unfair barrier to folks to whom getting involved in politics is a challenge at the best of times.”

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