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Jack Knox: Provincial leadership crucial in amalgamation debate

Total number of municipal politicians in the capital region: 91 (or 94 if you include those elected directly to the Capital Regional District board).
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Coralee Oakes, B.C.’s cabinet minister responsible for municipalities, is ultimately responsible for amalgamation.

Jack Knox mugshot genericTotal number of municipal politicians in the capital region: 91 (or 94 if you include those elected directly to the Capital Regional District board).

Total number on hand to hear former premier Mike Harcourt talk about amalgamation on Tuesday: four — three from Victoria and one from Esquimalt. The rest had to wash their hair.

No, that’s a cheap shot. Most of our 13 councils had Tuesday meetings that conflicted with the Harcourt talk.

Still, five months after a majority of local voters said they want at least a study of the pros and cons of amalgamation, local politicians haven’t exactly been pounding on Coralee Oakes’s door en masse, demanding action.

And it’s Oakes, B.C.’s cabinet minister responsible for municipalities, who will ultimately have to drive this bus.

Harcourt was speaking at a gathering of the Greatest Greater Victoria Conversation, which grew out of the Amalgamation Yes grassroots group. The latter drove the campaign that resulted in voters in Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt, Langford and all three Saanich Peninsula municipalities saying yes to some form of amalgamation question in November’s civic elections. Only those in Oak Bay — where the ballot question was worded something like “Do you favour being swallowed whole by Toronto?” — rejected the idea. (Harcourt, who went to Oak Bay High, joked that he wouldn’t be allowed back behind the Tweed Curtain after Tuesday.)

The other five municipalities — View Royal, Highlands, Colwood, Metchosin and Sooke — rejected the idea of putting an amalgamation question to voters (though, in reality, few expect Sooke to be part of the debate).

Since then, Oakes’s office has received letters from Victoria, Central Saanich, North Saanich, Sidney and — notably — Colwood, saying they want to take part in a governance study. Esquimalt plans to do so soon, and also intends to call a town meeting about it. Nothing yet from Saanich or Langford, or from the municipalities that didn’t vote in November, Tuesday’s meeting was told.

Some of those listening to Harcourt were frustrated, suspecting local politicians who oppose an amalgamation study will stall or hijack the process. Harcourt was asked: Why are these councillors so reluctant? “’Cause they’re going to lose their jobs,” he replied.

Harcourt told the crowd to force the issue. “I’m here to tell you it ain’t going to happen without a push.”

Have to pressure both municipal and provincial governments, he said, accusing the latter of “chickening out.” He compared the province’s reluctance to wade into controversy to his own 1990s government’s determination to end the War in the Woods, forcing all sides together to work things out. “Sometimes, you’ve just got to tackle tough issues, right?”

Harcourt suggested a two-year process ending in a regional vote. Can’t wait until the next civic elections in 2018, he said. Do that, and there’ll be no action until 2022.

We have heard nothing that definitive from Oakes’s office so far, though she can be forgiven for being careful in trying to pick through this knot. Even the terms of reference for an amalgamation study are contentious. Just as the Amalgamation Yes crowd are anxious that parochial politicians not be allowed to override the voters and derail this train, opponents of the study are anxious that the agenda not be shaped by the other side, delivering a pre-ordained result.

Yet, ultimately, if this is going to go anywhere, Oakes will need to lead from the front, not shepherd from behind. Dealing with the capital region’s municipalities is like herding cats at the best of times. They can’t even agree on the questions, let alone the answers. Allow each of them to wander off on their own and the process will grind to a halt, which would suit many of them just fine.

There are gooey problems to sort out. What happens if the amalgamation study results in a proposal endorsed by the voters in nine municipalities but rejected by the others? The community charter precludes the province from forcing amalgamation on any municipality that doesn’t want it.

For now, though, this isn’t about saying yes or no to amalgamation. It’s about gathering enough information to make an informed decision.