"If you want to go far, go together."
Ages ago when I was a political science student at university, Local Government was the course to be avoided. We were much more interested in national and international affairs. How boring it seemed to study the mundane functions of municipalities and counties – policing, fire protection, water and sewer services, street lighting, recreation, dog catching – the humdrum services with which the public interacts daily. We were happy to let somebody else manage that routine stuff while we operated at the higher levels where the bigger, more significant issues were addressed.
It took years of life experience to recognize the value of local control over local services. The nearer the government is to the ground, the more likely the community is to be secure, cared for and motivated.
In rural New Brunswick we have become quite passive about government control. While many of our cities and towns have active and vibrant municipal governments, rural communities have been content to be supervised by provincial bureaucracies. We now expect to be served by existing government departments and staff. But since he who has the gold pays the piper, as they say, the result is that while government provides the services, it also decides what these services will be, who will receive them, and what resources will be dedicated to them. We don’t think of it as authoritarian government because we can change the ruling party every so often, so we just tend to drift along under the paternal eye of the province until election time rolls around again. But we follow the directives from Fredericton and our tax money is spent on their priorities, not ours. It wasn’t always like this in rural areas.
Two or three generations ago, country folk organized their own schools, built small hospitals, cleared their own roads in the winter, offered charity to the poor. They were not dependent on a higher level of government for their wellbeing. But with the centralization of social services in Fredericton, it became unnecessary to act locally because resources were more equitably distributed from central offices. Community initiative withered. Our province is now seeing a renaissance of local government in rural areas through the establishment of Rural Communities which provide the infrastructure for local decision-making and action. Some of them, such as Upper Miramichi and Hanwell, are developing dynamic strategies which stimulate both the direct provision of basic services and economic growth.
These structures have given a voice to citizens who used to have no other option than to complain to their MLA, or to go hat-in-hand to Fredericton, begging for something they needed locally but which was not always on the provincial agenda. We are fed up with imploring; there must be a way to serve ourselves where we live while preserving governmental links.
Community resurgence is a double-edged sword, however. Citizens may wish to take matters into their own hands and develop community-based systems that are more responsive and cost-efficient, through a collaboration of local government and non-profit organizations. But local control means local responsibility, which demands dedicated involvement in civic affairs.
Engaged citizenship includes information gathering and reflection as well as effort. It’s easier to let somebody else think and act on our behalf, but then we have to take what we get. Local governance is challenging; it requires shared interests and concerns, and a willingness to cooperate. Keeping our government as close and accountable as possible protects our quality of life. As the proverb says, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Sue Rickard – Lower Queensbury
* This article appeared in the Telegraph Journal on August 11, 2017. It is presented here with permission of the author.