Last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President George Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon met in Montebello, Quebec, to discuss the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America.
Perhaps their communications people were hoping for a great photo opportunity, but what caught many people’s attention was the brazen way that civil society organizations were excluded from the event.
Other than government officials, the only participants allowed were members of the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC), a group of CEOs from big businesses in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. Everyone else, from consumer groups to social advocates to labour unions to environmental organizations, was literally locked out.
This is a stunningly partisan tactic. It sends a clear message that, for these leaders, politics is a competitive sport where winning is all about gaining control of public processes to advance one’s own interests.
Far from making progress, this only breeds suspicion and resentment which, in turn, make real dialogue and compromise that much harder when the time to talk finally comes.
There is a better way. It views public discussion and debate holistically, rather than competitively. The city of Saint John, N.B., provides a timely example, as it’s in the middle of a community-wide discussion on how to transform the city into an energy hub for the Atlantic region. Among other things, plans are being discussed for a new refinery and a nuclear power plant.
Not long ago, such proposals would have polarized the community. This time it’s different. While there has been controversy, there has also been a remarkable willingness on the part of all sides to work together to find options that will meet everyone’s needs.
The middle ground in this dialogue seems to rest on a shared view that the overarching goal is to build a sustainable community; and that to do that, the business community, environmentalists and social activists all need each other.
Consider the challenge of building a skilled workforce to support a thriving energy hub. It requires more than just new training institutions. It requires a liveable community.
Today, highly skilled people not only need quality training, they are very mobile and in demand. When they accept a job, the community they will live in is often as important as the rate of pay. They expect quality social services like education and health care to be available; they want clean air and water, and parks for their children; they want access to cultural events, such as music and theatre.
While old-style business leaders tended to see social and environmental goals like these as someone else’s concern – as simply a cost to business, to be avoided or minimized where possible – in Saint John the business community is taking the longer view. They recognize that achieving these goals is an investment in their future. It will help them ensure that they have the workforce they need to prosper over the long term.
By the same token, advocates for environmental protection or social programs who view major economic development as a threat to their goals, one to be resisted or opposed, are no less myopic. Poverty, for example, is one of the biggest obstacles to social development or solving environmental problems.
Focusing attention on what it takes to make a community sustainable thus unites rather than divides people. It forces everyone to look beyond their own viewpoint and treat economic, social, cultural and environmental interests as complementary and interdependent, rather than competitive and separate.
But there is a long way to go before this kind of thinking becomes the norm in public debate. Processes like the Security and Prosperity Partnership show just how attached our leaders still are to a view of politics that creates winners and losers.
That is no way to build a community – whether a municipality or a country. It ensures that aggrieved parties will be lying in wait, looking for the first chance to derail the plan, in the hope of reasserting their own goals. This, in turn, makes long-term planning all but impossible.
But to be sustainable, communities must plan for the future. People with different interests must be able to agree on long-term goals and trust one another enough to work together to solve problems that arise along the way. Building that kind of trust starts by bringing people inside the tent, not shutting them out.
Don Lenihan is provincial adviser on public engagement for the Government of New Brunswick. Engage with him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org