Tony Blair’s parting essay in The Economist entitled “What I’ve Learned” is a fascinating first person exploration of the new world order at the start of the twenty-first century. Delivered as it is by a retiring British Prime Minister who has stepped away, if not at the top of his game, then at least “when it was time”, it is immediate, practical and alive in a way that most political commentary simply can never be.
Already it has become fashionable to quote from this new opus as if it lays down the seminal defence and future vision for western democracy. Well, far be it from me to buck a trend.
Nevertheless, I do want to shift a little and focus on a short, almost throw away point that Mr. Blair adds in his afterthought “meanwhile, at home”. Point three of that section begins with the words:
Welfare systems work only if there is shared responsibility – the state to provide help, the citizens to use that help to help themselves.
I think in this single sentence Blair has grasped the critical point of domestic politics. It isn’t just welfare systems that work only if there is shared responsibility. It is liberal democracies and liberal democratic public policy that work only if there is shared responsibility – the state to provide what help it can, the citizens to use that help to help themselves.
Interestingly enough, I have been privileged recently to see this principle put into action here in Nova Scotia in response to the single biggest domestic threat this country has faced in a generation – the labour shortage.
In the first case, the trucking industry is having a remarkably difficult time meeting its labour needs. In response, it has aggressively sought partnerships with historically underrepresented communities – visible minorities, the physically challenged, women, and Aboriginals. The industry is seeking to change itself and its current employees in order to make the industry more welcoming to newcomers. They are adjusting work practices, investing in supportive innovation (both technical and personal), and seeking to proactively meet the needs of, and thereby attract, a new body of productive, hard working and committed workers.
The industry is not only changing itself. It is working just as hard with these groups to change the external view and perception of the industry. Sending the message that the trucking industry, like the groups it is now working with, deserves to be treated with respect and to be considered as a valuable and lucrative potential partner for a lifelong and rewarding work experience. Government has played an important role, not in dictating the need for this change, not in deciding how the change would take place, but in helping these groups help themselves.
In the second instance, Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations just announced a new partnership with the Laborers International Union of North America. That partnership will see the union work directly with Aboriginal communities to expand training and apprenticeship opportunities to fill the growing number of vacancies for nearly every construction trade. The objective is to engage a population suffering chronic unemployment in an industry that is suffering a debilitating lack of workers. It is the most basic application of helping yourself by helping someone else.
But Fontaine describes this already groundbreaking relationship in truly Blair like terms. He says “To take advantage of these opportunities we need to have our people trained, trained so that we are able to create a highly skilled, highly mobile labour force”.
Create a “highly mobile labour force”. With those few words Fontaine has embraced the Blair creed of using the state’s assistance to help yourself. No longer will the model be that government will bring the jobs and the money to the chronically underemployed native youth so that they can continue to reside in their traditional communities. Instead, Fontaine and the AFN and their union partners have said, give us the training and we will go where the jobs and the money are (taking our culture and traditions with us, of course, in true Canadian fashion).
This is a message and a lesson Tony Blair would embrace. Ask for a little help so you can take responsibility for yourself. Now if the rest of us could just sign on, perhaps Blair’s optimism for the future would be contagious.
Charles Cirtwill is the acting President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies,
www.aims.ca, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax.