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Economics and social justice books vie for $60k public policy prize

News

As Canadians continue to watch prices rise at the checkout, even as inflation shows some early signs of cooling, it’s fitting that a former Bank of Canada governor is on the shortlist of authors for the Donner Book Prize for public policy writing.

And in a surefire sign of the times, with his book on the coming “age of uncertainty” in the economy, Stephen Poloz is the second former Bank governor in two years to make the Donner shortlist. Last year, Mark Carney made the shortlist for his book on value and values.

The prize will be announced on May 18 in Toronto and the winner will receive a $60,000 grand prize.

Poloz likely tops the list in terms of name recognition, but the other four nominees can make the case that their books are just as relevant right now.

The other nominees are Joseph Heath, for his book on tackling tough societal problems; John Lorinc, for his book on smart cities; Ryan Manucha, for his book on interprovincial trade; and Kent Roach, for his book on the state of policing in Canada. Last year’s winner was Dan Breznitz, for Innovation in Real Places, which argued that Canada needs innovation-based growth that doesn’t just rely on the high-tech industry.

Poloz argues in his book that Canadian policymakers shouldn’t let ideas that have been conventionally described as a “political impossibility” be suppressed from the political discourse, citing the reform of Canada’s system of supply management for dairy products as an example.

“This political impossibility arises essentially because those who perceive that they would lose as a result of the change have their voices magnified by news media and social media and create serious political fallout for the government,” writes Poloz, in The Next Age of Uncertainty: How the World Can Adapt to a Riskier Future.

In a recent interview on the Hub Dialogues podcast, Heath said that an idealized view of justice can sometimes clash with public policy, a key concept in his book Cooperation & Social Justice.

“People are motivated by moral commitments, but they’re also motivated by their self-interest in a really complex way that’s actually really hard to understand and to model. It means that we can’t just prescribe moral solutions to social problems and expect everyone to fall in line,” said Heath.

Lorinc made a similar point in a discussion on Hub Dialogues, arguing that our utopian idea of what “smart cities” can do actually gets in the way of real progress.

One of the things I wanted to do with the book was really explain what we’re talking about when we’re talking about smart city technology,” said Lorinc.

“In a lot of cases, these are very specific applications. They don’t have anything to do with personal data. They’re about traffic light control and that kind of thing,” said Lorinc.

A recurring theme in the books is that Canadians would benefit from getting more involved in public policy and our democratic institutions in general. In his book on policing, Roach makes the case that Canadians might have to get more involved in local policing if we want to have effective oversight.

“Perhaps the time has come to follow the recent English practice of having local voters elect police and crime commissioners who can devote all of their energies to such matters,” writes Roach.

“Committees of local council may also be in a better position than police boards to make decisions about how the police should work with other public agencies responsible for health, family services, hous­ing, and education,” the book reads.

And although interprovincial trade has been an ongoing issue in Canada since Confederation, Manucha argued in his book that we could be at a favourable moment to look into reforms and freer trade among the provinces.

“If we look into the history of Canada, this is an opportunity for us. Where you see global isolationism in ascendancy, the U.S. is pulling back, to think about our domestic markets as an avenue for untapped growth that we have complete control over, where we’re not subject to the whims of a foreign power,” said Manucha, during a discussion on Hub Dialogues.

“And we all march behind the same flag in the Olympics and fight with the same uniform in times of war. Maybe there’s something to be said about what our citizenship should mean about unlocking that source of growth,” said Manucha.

The shortlisted books were published in 2022 and the winner receives a $60,000 prize, while the other nominees each receive $7,500.

The Donner Canadian Foundation was established in 1950 by businessman and philanthropist William H. Donner, as means of “encouraging private initiative, independence, and individual responsibility” in Canada, contributing more than $150 million to more than 2,500 projects across the country.

Former MP says election meddling in 2021 should have sounded alarm bells

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A former Conservative MP who says meddling by the Chinese government cost him his seat in the 2021 election claimed this week that his story should have been a warning to the government to get its act together on foreign interference.

“It should have been a pan-partisan issue to protect the country and its people. It’s arguably the top job of any sovereign government,” said Kenny Chiu, the former Conservative MP for Steveston—Richmond East, who was appearing before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on Tuesday.

“Yet, we’re seeing an inexplicable [action-free] policy exercised by our federal government, vis à vis interference from the most resourceful and ambitious of all foreign states… the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime,” said Chiu.

Chiu lost his re-election bid in the 2021 federal election, a result that he has stated multiple times was due to meddling from CCP, or pro-CCP, actors. He says a campaign of disinformation was started among users of social media apps like WeChat in Richmond after Chiu proposed a public registry to track the political influence of foreign entities. 

When asked by Conservative MP Michael Cooper about the specifics of the disinformation spread against him during the 2021 election, Chiu said he and then-Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole were subjected to the same false accusations. 

“As if he’s a white supremacist, that he’s anti-Chinese, anti-Asian, and, as if it’s not ridiculous enough, they level similar attacks on me personally,” said Chiu, who was born in Hong Kong. “The fact that I’m ethnic Chinese, I speak fluent Cantonese and Mandarin, I read and write the language…and yet it doesn’t prevent them from labelling that I’m a traitor, that I’m a sellout for what I have proposed.”

The committee’s ongoing investigation into foreign interference dovetailed this week with the expulsion of Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei, following a Globe and Mail report that the family of Conservative MP Michael Chong had been subjected to an intimidation campaign orchestrated by Zhao. 

Chiu said that while he had a meeting with a CSIS contact during his re-election campaign regarding foreign interference in his riding, he had no further contact with the same national security officials after the election.

Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull was skeptical of Chiu’s claim that the foreign meddling was the key factor in swinging the vote in Steveston—Richmond East.

“I guess what I want to establish here is did you lose by nine percent of the vote or not?” asked Turnbull, which Chiu confirmed before Turnbull continued. “And how many votes do you think were impacted by foreign interference?” 

“If I can have a camera installed on each and every move and look at how people voted then I will be able to, for certain, answer your question,” replied Chiu. 

Turnbull then asked Chiu if he admitted that he did not know how many votes in his riding were impacted by foreign interference. 

“There will be no way…to tell that foreign interference is not a factor of an election result in my riding,” Chiu responded. 

Turnbull mentioned a survey among Chinese-Canadians during the 2021 election that indicated there had been no change in voter intention between the first two weeks of the campaign and its final two weeks. Chiu replied that he had not read the survey, but wanted to know what language it was conducted in as the Chinese-Canadian community is not homogenous and includes Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, as well as people whose families are from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mainland China. 

Foreign interference is a problem that governments need to take seriously, said David Salvo, a senior fellow and managing director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Salvo’s organization was formed initially to research ways to combat foreign interference from Russia during U.S. elections but expanded its focus to include interference from China and other countries like Iran.

“In Canada, you do not need me to tell you that foreign interference in democracy remains a serious challenge,” said Salvo. “The rise in Chinese state-sponsored interference in Canadian democracy through targeting specific ridings and candidates and elections, maligned financial coercion and subversion of civil society including the Chinese-Canadian diaspora has been well documented.”

Jenni Byrne, the former deputy chief of staff to prime minister Stephen Harper, closed the week of hearings with a feisty appearance at committee on Thursday. 

Byrne sparred with Turnbull and had a spirited exchange with NDP MP Matthew Green, with Green arguing that it’s “very suspicious” that Byrne was never briefed on foreign interference while working in Stephen Harper’s prime minister’s office.

The partisan dynamic drove the committee down another predictable road, with Liberal and NDP MPs grilling Byrne on foreign interference and Byrne calling for a public inquiry to investigate Chinese interference in recent Canadian elections.

“I don’t see how, at this point, there can’t be a public inquiry,” said Byrne.

“It often seems like this government and their friends are angrier at the whistleblowers and the journalists who are reporting on foreign interference than they are about the serious threat to our democracy that this foreign interference poses,” said Byrne.