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Canada must move away from ‘diplomacy on autopilot’ with China: Former ambassador

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Canada needs to stop conducting “diplomacy on autopilot” with China if it wants to join a burgeoning international effort to check the country’s ambitions, argued David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador to China.

The current policy of “comprehensive engagement” assumes that “any idea that China has is, by definition, a good idea,” said Mulroney, in a Q&A session Wednesday evening with Sean Speer, The Hub’s editor-at-large. The Hub Exchange was the first in a series of quarterly events that will provide access to interesting personalities and perspectives on issues of national interest.

Mulroney said there are many areas where it is still essential for Canada to partner with China, including the environment, food safety, global health, and the economy. But on other issues, and in multilateral engagement on the whole, it will be important that Canada is more selective about its diplomatic efforts.

That will be a major shift for Canadian politicians and diplomats, he said.

“It will require much more thought, it will require much more management of foreign policy. That will be difficult for everybody,” said Mulroney. “It’ll be particularly difficult for Canada because we haven’t put much thought into our foreign policy for a long time, and we’re going to pay a price in terms of the learning curve that we have to go up.”

Although it would be a major shift in Canadian diplomacy, it could be the right time to make the change. It is a unique moment, as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and examines the role of Chinese officials who spent weeks downplaying the virus and blocking information from reaching health authorities.

Are Canadians ready to take a new, more skeptical, look at China?

“I’m going to give you a resounding yes and no,” said Mulroney. “Canadians, and this is shown in the polling, get it, and are increasingly concerned. And this isn’t belligerent. They’re not anti-China, but they’re aware that China is changing.”

Seventy-five percent of Canadians are uneasy with the prospect of China becoming the next global superpower, according to a survey conducted by Public Square and Maru/Blue and provided exclusively to The Hub in April.

Mulroney said it’s a different story among Canadian elites, though, and he was disturbed by calls from former diplomats and politicians to release Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and end her extradition process in Canada. Two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, were detained in China shortly after Meng was detained in Vancouver in 2018.

“What it suggested was something of a fatigue, a moral fatigue. We could do the right thing but it’s just too darn hard,” said Mulroney.

Mulroney said the West’s complacency about China has been growing since the ’90s, when the country experienced explosive economic growth and made overtures about joining the rules-based international order.

When China was negotiating to join the World Trade Organization in 1999, U.S. officials, and most of the Western world, believed that economic growth would be accompanied by democratic reforms. In reality, while China’s economic growth has exceeded expectations, it has not been accompanied by political reform.

Mulroney said the recent efforts by the U.S. and the U.K. to address the growing threat of China could be the sign a major shift in the geopolitical world.

“What we’ll be seeing in the next few years, I think, is a process of realignment,” said Mulroney. “A return, by the United States, to the process of alliance-building and formation. It had lost interest in this — and this is something that predates Donald Trump. I think as Canadians we could feel that American interest in alliances, including the bilateral alliance, was waning.”

Canadians will be looking enviously at Iceland’s shorter work week

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People are tired of working so many hours.

We may not have needed a poll to tell us that, but the Angus Reid Institute confirmed last year that a 30-hour work week sounds A-OK to more than 50 percent of Canadians.

And now, those Canadians will be looking wistfully to Iceland where a trial run of a reduced work week has been described as an “overwhelming success” and led to a sea change in the way people do business in the country.

For five years, about one percent of Iceland’s workforce enjoyed work weeks of 35 to 36 hours with no reduction in pay. Since the conclusion of the trial, 86 percent of Iceland’s entire workforce has shifted to shorter work hours or has gained the right to do so.

Critics of the study have pointed out that it may be a little too optimistic and, since the workers were all government employees, the research may be making an unintentional argument for smaller government.

Most intriguingly for the employers, though, the experiment was revenue neutral and saw no loss in productivity.

The study took place across a wide range of workplaces, from offices to daycares to hospitals. Workers reported big increases in general wellbeing, especially relating to stress and burnout, and some even detailed health benefits.

But in the U.S. and the U.K., people now work an average of 42 hours each week, with more than 10 percent of people working 50+ hours each week. Canada clocks in with an average work week of 40 hours.

So, the question is obvious: if a shorter work week benefits employees and employers and even society as a whole, why are we still toiling away from Monday to Friday in virtually every country on Earth?

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes expected Britons to be working a 15-hour work week within two generations.

Culture may have something to do with it. For many people, work is simply a necessity, but among the professional classes it has become something closer to a status symbol, with ever-longer work weeks raising status accordingly.

Writing at the The Atlantic Monthly, Derek Thompson dubbed this new culture “workism.”

“For the college-educated elite, (work) would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community,” writes Thompson.

This new work culture wasn’t necessarily inevitable.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote that he expected Britons to be working a 15-hour work week within two generations, enjoying more leisure and family time thanks to the economic productivity gains he predicted in the British economy.

Keynes was correct about the productivity gains that would continue through the second half of the 20th century across most of the western world (in fact, he underestimated them) but he was wrong about the length of the average work week.

But it’s probably unfair to skewer Keynes for his off-the-mark prediction, because it’s not a fair comparison. The quality of life in the 1930s was much lower than in contemporary society and 15 hours of work in today’s economy would likely afford a worker the quality of life of a full-time worker a century ago, with no vacation, few clothes and cramped housing.

It could just be that people value quality of life gains over leisure time, or it could be that we’ve just stumbled along with a 40-hour work week without ever really thinking about it.

The Fraser Institute, a public policy think tank, while remaining broadly supportive of the idea of a four day work week, recently injected some reality into the idea, arguing that if a shorter work week was so obviously better for productivity “one would expect that profit-oriented companies would have already made the four-day work week ubiquitous.”

Rather than assume that a four-day work week would have no effect on the output of employees, especially considering how much harder it would be for younger employees to learn the ropes with less time to do it in, the think tank identified productivity goals that would ease the transition to a shorter work week.

Steven Globerman, a resident scholar at the Fraser Institute, found that a four-day work could be adopted seamlessly by most employers if labour productivity in Canada grows at approximately two percent per year from 2018 to 2030.

In some ways, it’s a lofty goal, because that would double Canada’s current labour productivity growth, but it’s about equal to Canada’s long-run historical rate of growth.

Among a host of other measures, Canada could also remove barriers to interprovincial trade and introduce tax reform, to juice productivity with relatively little cost.

The equation is simple: if workers produce more in the hours they work, they won’t have to work as many hours. With Iceland showing some success with its experiment and world leaders showing some measured support, it might not be the craziest idea.