By Barry O'Neill
VICTORIA, Jan. 29 /CNW/ - According to recent polls, a majority of
Canadians believe that the federal government has too much power. Nearly as
many believe that local governments - including school boards - should have
more power. According to an Ipsos-Reid poll, commissioned last fall by CUPE
BC, most people trust local school boards to make decisions about the
education of their children far more than they trust the provincial government
to do so.
Why is it that we place such faith in our local community leadership -
both councils and school boards - to do the right thing?
The main reason is that they are local. School trustees and councilors
don't make decisions hundreds of miles away; they make them in the communities
where they live, and they have to live with those decisions. If local citizens
don't like what they've done, they hear about it - in the grocery store, on
the way to work, and from their neighbours and spouses. If you are a town
councilor or a school trustee, you have no place to hide.
That's why people have some sense of ownership of decisions made locally,
and it's why they have some sense that they can change those decisions if
enough people disagree with them. The problem is local governments are facing
more challenges to their decision-making ability, thanks to interference by
the other levels of government. And frequently, that interference is not good
for our communities.
The Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) between B.C.
and Alberta, for example, stops local governments and school boards from
making decisions for their citizens and children if those deals interfere with
the rights of investors. And so-called public-private partnerships (P3s),
which saddle taxpayers with the burden of debt for contracts that can last 35
years or more, put local councils in the position of having to support
much-needed infrastructure projects that end up benefiting private
corporations more than the communities they are supposed to serve.
So what can we do to free up our communities to make decisions for their
citizens? We've all heard the clichés about globalization and "the global
economy", which assume there is no alternative to what's happening now. But
that's just a cop-out for federal and provincial governments to justify how
they spend our tax dollars by passing laws, signing contracts with
multinational corporations and negotiating trade deals that are neither
beneficial to our communities nor something those governments believe requires
local input. Globalization rhetoric lets Ottawa and Victoria off the hook for
ignoring our infrastructure needs, cutting back on transfers and offloading
more responsibility to local governments.
First of all, senior governments need to reverse this trend by making
sure communities have the resources they need. One way to start, suggest both
the Union of B.C. Municipalities and the Federation of Canadian
Municipalities, is to direct a portion of the GST or the provincial sales tax
to municipalities. This would help address questions like the infrastructure
deficit, among other needs.
We also need to have both our federal and provincial governments take the
crisis we have in the B.C. forest industry more seriously. We know how much
money goes into Ontario and Quebec to deal with the automobile industry. Do we
need to start building cars with pine beetle wood before they start listening?
Above all, we need to have serious amounts of infrastructure money to make
sure our communities can take advantage of economic opportunities. That means
we need roads, sewers, and water systems, and we need them now, when the
forest industry is in crisis.
We know that our citizens will hold local community leaders accountable
for how that money is spent. And we need to spend that money in a way that has
the maximum impact on our communities. For smaller communities in particular,
I believe that part of what makes this possible is the right to have some sort
of local preference for local businesses. This is nothing new: these very
practices - especially in the area of procurement strategies targeting local
firms - are common in 25 of 50 states, 13 of 26 large cities and five of 18
large counties in the United States right now.
The critical concept in this policy area - and this is where the
individual citizen plays a big role - is the economic multiplier. What this
means is that each purchase you make triggers purchases by others. For
instance, a dollar spent on rent might be spent again by your property owner
at your local grocer, who in turn pays an employee who then buys a movie
ticket. And thus you have what economists call "the multiplier": the more
times a dollar circulates within a defined geographic area, and the faster it
circulates without leaving that area, the more income, wealth, and jobs it
generates. The basic concept in community economics points to the importance
of maximizing the number of dollars entering a community and minimizing their
The TILMA, it should be noted, expressly forbids this. Now the process
would have to be open and transparent, and subject to discussion in the
community. But not under the TILMA.
Another thing local governments can seriously look at is import
substitution. We've heard a lot recently about the 100-mile diet. If we buy
locally-produced food, it is fresher and easier on the environment. It takes a
lot of fuel to fly in apples from Chile. Why shouldn't local governments and
school boards specifically look at sourcing their food requirements locally?
And how many other products could we do this with?
Import substitution is the most direct means by which we can build local
economic multipliers. But, of course, those kinds of small things that can
help build our local economies are not part of the globalization mantra that
seems to have us hypnotized.
Import substitution is a lot cheaper than trying to build an export
economy. We would probably have to pay $300 million to get a German carmaker
to come here. We can support our local businesses and our communities for next
A city or region that can produce local substitutions for imports,
injects income that will stay in the community for a long period of time,
boosting local economic vitality substantially.
Barry O'Neill is president of CUPE BC - This column is an adapted excerpt
of a presentation he is giving in 5 Vancouver Island communities this week.
For further information:
For further information: Barry O'Neill, (604) 340-6768 (cell); Dan
Gawthrop, (604) 999-6132 (cell)