A-word conversation continues

By Derry McDonell, May 2015

Former BC Premier Mike Harcourt tells a pro-amalgamation crowd that citizens will have to lead the way.

If the 75 percent of Greater Victoria residents who voted in favour of making changes to the governance structure of the region last November actually want it to happen, they had better get involved and be prepared to drive the process forward themselves. That was the frank advice of former BC Premier Mike Harcourt, speaking to a meeting organized by Amalgamation Yes on April 21. About 75 people attended.

“Don’t wait for the politicians to do something,” said Harcourt. “If you do, nothing will happen.”

The politicians are too invested in the status quo, he explained. “They are worried about their mayor’s perks and planning director’s salaries.” 

Harcourt’s point seemed borne out simply by looking at who attended—and who did not attend—the meeting. Although all 13 municipal councils were invited to the meeting, only four councillors—three from Victoria (Pam Madoff, Chris Coleman, Geoff Young) and one from Esquimalt (Beth Burton-Krahn)— were present to hear Harcourt’s message. (Focus has also learned that a February 17 letter by Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps to all 13 councils, inviting them to participate in discussions with the Province, has so far elicited only one positive response, from Esquimalt, which this week passed a motion endorsing the initiative. As well, a Focus Magazine email last week to all 13 CRD mayors asking what, if anything, their council had done about the issue since November, and whether they intended to participate in discussions with the Province about it, has so far received only three replies.)

Citizens should not count on provincial politicians to help out either, noted Harcourt. They’d rather not get involved in anything “messy” like the amalgamation debate here, he said.

Harcourt, a student in Oak Bay as a youth, got his political start fighting a proposed freeway through East Vancouver in the 1970s and was later elected councillor and then mayor of Vancouver before becoming premier in 1991. He pulled no punches in rousing the Victoria audience to citizen-led action, saying “citizen-led initiatives are the only way to make things happen…just figure out what you want, develop some alternatives and go for it.”

His recommendation was to press the Province to fund both the research and a public engagement process, then to frame no more than two or three objectives [of amalgamation] plus the final option or options to be put to a referendum. 

Time frame? “Not more than six or seven years” to implementation said Harcourt. “That’s two and a half years for the research and public engagement; another two to draft the referendum question [for 2018] and have it approved [by voters]; and two for the Province to implement it.”

Asked what amalgamation supporters could or should do if local councils continued to ignore the issue, especially those in which either no plebiscite was held or where the result was a “no” vote, Harcourt was succinct: “Why are you asking them? Screw ’em. You don’t have to ask their permission.”

Harcourt outlined key reasons for supporting better regional governance in both Victoria and Vancouver. “In Vancouver alone, we are growing by 30,000 to 40,000 residents every year,” he pointed out, while Victoria and Vancouver together account for 60 percent of the entire BC population. 

Globally, cities are already where most of the world’s population lives and this trend will continue to grow into the foreseeable future, he said. Indeed, projections show that by 2050 there will be four billion more people living in urban centres. 

The challenge however, is how to make urban life liveable. “There are many large cities around the world now where most people are living in horrible conditions—poverty, filth and high crime rates,” said Harcourt. “Solving that problem, both here and elsewhere, boils down to better local services, like housing, garbage collection, sewage treatment, public transit. You don’t solve anything by building more freeways or putting in big pipes; urban sustainability is the answer.”

Harcourt cited urban expert Richard Florida to explain why urban liveability is not just a social benefit but a key driver of the economic health of a city. “Florida’s research looked at what type of people opt to live in a city and what type of city they choose to live in,” he said. “What he found was that the professional, cultural and upwardly mobile class constitute about 30 percent of the typical large urban population, and these folks base their choice of where to live and work on what the city has to offer in terms of overall lifestyle.”

In other words, a city’s “liveability” rating has become a key competitive point both in attracting talent and keeping it, said Harcourt. Applying this principle locally, Harcourt said that Greater Victoria should realize it’s competing with other attractive urban centres like Saskatoon and Portland, and should definitely not be viewing it as “Langford competing with Esquimalt,” he said.

Meanwhile, affordability, homelessness and economic viability are major issues in both Victoria and Vancouver, he noted. “We can’t leave it to our kids to figure it out.” 

During a planning exercise, audience members were asked to describe what they wanted Victoria to look like 35 years from now. When responses from the various tables were collated, five central themes emerged: a reformed regional government with more direct accountability; homelessness solved; a housing strategy that addresses affordability; a sustainable "green" economy in the region; and, a reliable public transit system with substantially less reliance on cars.

To address such issues successfully, Harcourt noted, you can’t “continue to use a 19th-century or even a 20th-century governance model for urban municipalities. It creates too much inertia at the top.” 

The current governance structure in BC’s two major urban centres is a key roadblock that needs to be reformed, he said. There are too many municipalities with overlapping agendas, plus inconsistent leadership by the Province. “There are 22 municipalities in the Greater Vancouver region. In the Coquitlam area alone, you have three city halls within a mile of each other.”

As for the Province not being consistent, he asked a question: “Why was it deemed necessary to have a referendum on a transit tax for Vancouver when other major projects, like the Port Mann Bridge, were approved by Provincial fiat?”

“You’ve got to start building from the bottom up and push both the local and provincial levels to make the changes you want,” Harcourt concluded, “and governance is a key part of the solution.”


Editor’s Note: In last month’s “A-Word conversation begins,” we mistakenly stated that Amalgamation-Yes had been renamed as the Greater Victoria Conversation. They are two separate organizations. Amalgamation Yes promotes a provincially-led study and provides information concerning possible amalgamation in the region, while the Greater Victoria Conversation is promoting dialogue around the amalgamation question among citizens in the Greater Victoria area.

Derry McDonell likes the no-nonsense style of Mike Harcourt and wishes our local mayors and their councillors would take a page from his book.