The plumber's dilemma

By Gene Miller, January 2016

The delusional desire for amalgamation.

Just received an email, with the subject line: “GENIUS PILLS Are Changing Lives!!!!—Boost Your IQ. Order Now!”

Should I click “open” and go for it?

Nah, because I don’t take IDIOT PILLS and I know that the lurking electronic predators who produce this stuff would attempt to quickly strip my net worth to the last available penny. 

Not that I wouldn’t love to take a handful of yeasty genius pills and feel my head balloon as it yielded to my expanding genius brain. From the penthouse balcony of my new tower redoubt, lightning wreathing my outstretched arms, sparks fizzing from my fingertips, I would intone Great Words and provide solutions to the Riddles and Mysteries that have plagued humankind since the Beginning of Time. I would bring Happiness and Plenty to the multitude. At least, that’s what it describes in this book I’m reading: Sheer Crap, Or 101 Delusions That Have No Claim On Reality.

Which, with a few right turns, leads us to Amalgamation Yes (AY), a local organization dedicated to the discredited belief—which means objectively unsupportable on Planet Earth—that municipal consolidation saves lots of tax dollars, eliminates sub-regional duplication and inefficiency, jettisons superfluous staff, creates policy clarity, and sharpens municipal intention; and whose mascot, if you read AY’s online desiderata, should be a straw man plumber apparently so mystified and stymied by the complexities and contradictions of inconsistent local municipal protocols that, bitter and defeated, he either quits the trade for the monastic life or relocates to plumber-friendly, amalgamated Sudbury.

As reported in the local paper not that long ago, provincial Minister of Community Peter Fassbender, in a presentation last November to the Victoria Chamber of Commerce, said that the Province won’t force amalgamation locally. Study the gem-like clarity of that message: The. Province. Won’t. Force. Amalgamation. Locally. You might think that’s a pretty clear statement, but this is National Brain Death Month: “Billy, it’s raining double-edge razor blades. Don’t go outside.” “I wanna, I wanna.”

No parodic analogy is too preposterous in the effort to accurately frame the pro-amalgamation argument; say, something like: “Why won’t the various municipalities simply put the question to a referendum, whether every man, woman and child living in the Capital Region should drink a whole jug of Drano? After all, it’s just a referendum to measure public interest.” 

When did a spanking and being sent to bed without dinner go out of style?

In other social settings, people are gently led to places where they can do no harm to themselves or others or, at a minimum, are relieved of credibility and influence for uttering delusional, destructive ideas that threaten the polity. But here in the land of the pro-amalgamation Drano-drinkers, they get a major news story in the daily plus a supportive editorial plus additional leans-their-way content from the paper’s resident columnist. 

I grew less than 30 seconds older locating this headline from a 2014 piece in the Star online: “Amalgamation brought fewer Ontario cities, but more city workers, report finds.” Reading on, I learn that “New analysis finds local governments actually grew bigger, faster, after Mike Harris’s so-called Common Sense Revolution, which massively restructured Toronto and other cities with the aim of reducing costs.” 

In other words, Harris’s so-called Common Sense Revolution was the Nonsense Revolution, but, of course, only in reality, here, in this world, at the present time; which, scaling the heights of perversity, means to some: “Let’s do in Victoria exactly what Ontario did but achieve the opposite outcome.” And to give credit where it’s due, who can prove that amalgamation doesn’t reduce staff and save dough in Xanadu, or Oz, or Atlantis, or on Planet Zircon, or Dimension 9?

Wrote our daily on November 18, “Pro-amalgamation forces are disappointed after hearing that the Province won’t impose amalgamation in Greater Victoria. ‘It is not the role or the intent of the government of BC to force anything on local communities that the local communities don’t want themselves,’ Community Minister Fassbender said.” 

Frank Bourree, Chamber of Commerce board chairman, told Fassbender that the organization hopes to see some level of amalgamation in the region. “It’s very important to us.” 

So, I’m sure, is daily exercise. And regular bowel movements.

John Vickers, a founder of Amalgamation Yes, called Fassbender’s announcement “tremendously disappointing.” “What we need at this time is leadership. We need leadership by the provincial government.”

Of course, Vickers got leadership from the provincial government, but it isn’t really leadership that he wants. He wants amalgamation.

Here’s leadership, stripped of senior governmental niceties: Amalgamation? No! There will never be amalgamation in the Capital Region because whatever the current system’s minor deficiencies and flaws, you have a brilliant, successful, affordable, efficient and accessible form of local government right now; and amalgamation will not produce any operating economies, will not improve the region’s sense of purpose or identity, and is guaranteed to diminish the rare and enviable feelings of public engagement and social belonging for the vast majority of people. Now, go away and behave yourselves. Better yet, work constructively and patiently to improve local government’s performance.

It takes little more effort than a series of mouse clicks to quickly discover that the post-municipal amalgamation experience in Canada has almost always been that the size of municipal government—however counter-intuitive it may seem—is not reduced, but increased, and that public sector costs expand at a faster rate than before. In a March, 2013 piece by reporter Tristin Hopper about amalgamation prospects in Victoria, the National Post presented just that conclusion, as expressed by Timothy Cobban, political science professor at Western University and lead researcher of a study of the Harris consolidations in Ontario. The piece also carried remarks from other academics: “Critics warn that Victoria should hang onto its baker’s dozen of fiefdoms at all costs. ‘Big municipal governments are horribly inefficient,’ said UVic professor emeritus Bob Bish. ‘As government gets bigger, you actually spend more on council.’ Andrew Sancton, an expert in municipal amalgamations based at the University of Western Ontario, chalks it up to the allure of simplicity. ‘It’s a symbolic option,’ he said. ‘When you don’t really know what to do, you can initiate an amalgamation and say you’re doing something.’”

Of course, academics are notoriously biased in favour of the facts and routinely disregard ideology, opinions, attitudes and spiritual visions pinballing around peoples’ mental circuitry, so why take the academics seriously?

Can anyone explain what’s really going on in those pro-amalgamation heads? I’m convinced that the amalgamation idea itself is code for some surrogate need or feeling, some hard-to-reach itch. You’ve met these folks before, in life and in literature: “If everybody would do what I want, the world would be a better place.” Maybe it’s like “basement therapy” where clutter becomes a metaphor for the enemy in your head; so you reorganize things, throw out some crap, make room for some new crap from upstairs, and give yourself a delirious (if short-lived) sense of accomplishment, mastery and virtue. Now, you believe, your life is ordered. 

The problem with such rituals of self-perfection is that while they may be harmlessly crazy as private enactments, they are, or can be, socially calamitous when they graduate to the status of public policy. You have only to look south at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump—trust me, the man is street-legal, but insane—to understand how the projection of personal psychosis (Trump’s publically sanctioned I’m right ‘cause I’m rich and successful, you’re wrong because I said so) into the public realm can lead to political chaos. 

You may feel I’m reaching with this, but how else to understand the fact-dismissing, sweeping contempt toward the existence of 13 local municipalities? Is it an emasculating “small municipality syndrome” that makes these pro-amalgamation critics think we’re an embarrassment elsewhere? Is it shame? Do others point at the tiny size of our municipalities and laugh derisively? Does “small” stand for dotty, anachronistic, idiosyncratic, proof that we’re rinky-dink, not with it, and just not ready for prime time?

Chamber friends, as a bumper sticker pasted to the butt of a blue Subaru parked the other day at the Mayfair Mall suggested: “You Don’t Have To Believe Everything You Think.”

I have seen the future, and it is filled with the collapse of impossibly large and unmanageable structures—political, social, economic—that contribute little to citizen well-being or community pleasure. Desperately, longingly, people will look for alternatives and for models of workable, rich, sustaining community. We live in one. 

In fact, do you know a word that residents and visitors often use, right now, while attempting to describe Victoria? “Paradise.”

Metchosin mayor John Ranns’ succinct quote in the National Post amalgamation story is a perfect closing note: “You’re not going to save money, you’re going to be giving up a lot of control…and if there’s not a lot of thought put into it, you’re going to destroy Victoria.”

Gene Miller is a founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences. He currently serves on the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability.