Amalgamation, Community and government — big, small, old, new

Ahhh, amalgamation! The July/August (2017) issue of Focus magazine (Victoria, here) contained an interesting letter to the editor (Time for Metro Victoria, here) that brings readers back to issues current in Victoria.

How should we govern ourselves ‘locally’, and how local is ‘just right’?

In Victoria in 2017 the Chamber of Commerce, various ad hoc groups and concerned individuals are promoting amalgamation.

Let me immediately declare my interest. I am a “globalist”, so I certainly believe I share responsibility for self-governance in this little corner of B.C. with about 350,000 others. I try to “think globally and act locally”, and I am frustrated — even angry — that, so far, we have substantially mishandled “globalism”. Very, very small numbers of us have benefitted beyond all belief, about 20% of us (myself included) have benefitted somewhat, and about 80% of us have been hurt by globalization or seen no benefit whatsoever. My conclusion is not that globalism is a bad thing: my conclusion is that we need to ask some wiser questions, and change our path, before we continue on.

In a similar vein, my problem with amalgamation is that proponents think they have the answer before they have considered the question(s).

Until someone tells the provincial government otherwise, amalgamation means using the provisions in current legislation, or tweaking them a little, to create a single government for more of the people of greater Victoria. At the moment, nothing the proponents have put forward suggests a very new – and better – way of being ‘big’. As a resident of Oak Bay, proponents of amalgamation propose that I should learn to enjoy living in the framework of organization, evidence-gathering, and decision-making making that has brought us the new Blue Bridge, the proposed sewage treatment plant, end more. I am not re-assured that citizens of James Bay or Fernwood delight in living in a bigger municipality than I do.

That isn’t good enough for me.

Today, and into the future, we live in more or less concentric circles of self-governance, including our municipality, our region, our province, and our country. There doesn’t seem to be any issue or project for which there is only one hand on the tiller. Some politicians refer to this as “co-governance”. At the moment, co-governance is primitive, messy, and often leads to unsatisfactory outcomes.

This is not to say that co-governance is a wrong-headed idea. Personally, I believe in the idea and I believe it has immense potential.

But we need, explicitly, to acknowledge the reality of co-governance, and we need to bring some disruptive new thinking to the idea of co-governance.

As it currently works, amalgamation will not solve any problems of revenue for local government. It will not resolve unanswered questions about which aspect of government has a mandate to do what. It will not deal with the matter of what a dissatisfied electorate can do to rein in a mediocre (or worse) local government. It will not clarify or strengthen the relationship between the provincial government and the (new) local government.

In addition, amalgamation will strip some small communities of some of the self-government that leaves them feeling their District is a neighbourhood. It does nothing to satisfy the frustrations of neighbourhoods in existing muncipalities.

The current conversation could actually facilitate a great inquiry and conversation about what people in greater Victoria value about what they have where they are. The conversation could also lead us into exploring how other, very successful metro areas self-govern, sometimes with a single government, sometimes with a two-tier government, and sometimes with a three-tier government.

Proponents of amalgamation seem to recognize the opportunity, somewhat. But they recognize it vaguely and without appreciating its power or urgency. Their response is to say that the provincial government should be charged to explore the options, and invent something new if necessary.

If we believe in democratic and responsible self-government isn’t that a little like putting the fox in charge of the hen house? Aren’t we failing in our responsibility to self-govern?

A provincial exploration of options and their invention of new ways will serve the interests of the provincial government, not necessarily the interests of citizens living in houses in neighbourhoods. I don’t mean to disparage the work or effect of the provincial government. After all, it is my servant as is my local council. It serves my needs as well, according to its best lights.

But, as a famous philosopher says, the job of the provincial government is to create and sustain the “systemworld”. In my neighbourhood and municipality, I want evidence gathered, decisions made and things done in a way that reflect what the same philosopher calls the “lifeworld”. I want human scale, personal relationships, regard for the ecology to which I am immediately connected.

At the moment, proponents of amalgamation in Victoria are only offering me “bigger, economies of scale, more mechanistic systems, decisions, and outcomes”. It is not re-assuring.

I would prefer, first, to go through a local process of figuring out what my neighbours want and need locally and regionally, how to enlarge the sphere of our self-government, and how to join local self-government in a better system of co-governance. Then, I would like to take something new to the provincial government and say to the government, “We have invented our own future. It will serve our needs well: it will function well in co-governance with you, and we want to make it happen.”

Why don’t we imagine what could be, and ask “why not”?

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