John Risley: Why public policy belongs to all of us
The following is a transcript of an acceptance speech given by John Risley at the Public Policy Forum’s Testimonial Dinner Awards and Honour Roll on April 27, 2023 in Toronto.
Thank you very much.
Well, I don’t know about you, but after listening to Naila and Stephanie, I have absolutely no idea why I’m here.
It seems to me I started somewhere around young and naïve, and I’m well on my way to old and stupid, that’s about as much as I would care to say about myself.
So look, it is a huge honour to follow these two magnificent ladies, and to be joined by the other honourees, who you’ll hear from this evening, and my heartiest congratulations to them.
I’ve got five minutes to try to worry the hell out of you, and then leave you with a thought about it is you can do about it, if in fact I’ve been successful.
My mother taught me to worry – she was always a worrier, even when she didn’t have anything to worry about, so I’ve come by this naturally, and I can tell you that I’m more worried now than I ever have been. And I say that because I think we’ve got some huge problems in this country, and globally.
At home, they start with our health-care system. We like to talk about it internationally as a system of which we’re proud. We’re not proud of our system. Our system is badly broken, and we don’t know what to do to fix it, which is a huge shame because there are really good health-care systems around the world. We need to stop thinking about fixing the system by pouring more money into it, you don’t fix a broken company by pouring more money in it, you rethink strategy and direction and do something structurally. And we need to have the courage to do that about our health-care system.
I worry about climate change because I don’t see the honesty in the debate. We kid ourselves into thinking that we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels far faster than we can. And we oppose new fossil fuel projects in this country when they’re not designed to increase the consumption of fossil fuels around the globe, they are to replace the fossil fuels being generated elsewhere in the world with a much higher environmental footprint than is permitted in this country. I don’t understand why we have so much difficulty making that argument.
And I do worry about climate change because I see – and I’m not a scientist and I’m not a climatologist and I don’t have the capacity to predict – but extreme weather events scare the hell out of me, they should scare all of us, and if they get more frequent, it will tell us, to the extent we need this lesson, that we need to move with a greater sense of urgency on climate change. And we need be honest about the targets we’re setting for ourselves, which as they currently sit are not realistic because there’s too much inertia and not enough push to get on with the job.
I worry about the wealth gap. I know there are answers to the health-care system and I know there are answers to climate change, I worry about what the answers are to the wealth gap. We need to be very retrospective as one of the world’s richest societies about a solution to this. We cannot feel good about the growing wealth in this country if we can’t close that gap.
And then to the extent that I haven’t been successful, let’s talk about the geopolitical situation. I worry about the outcome of the Ukraine war, and I worry because I don’t understand how we help Mr. Putin extricate himself in such a way as he can call this a win, without giving him a win. And that has to be the objective, we cannot give him a win, but we have to allow him to retire gracefully – he is the second most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world and we need to be very conscious of the fact that this man has an enormous ego, and controls the button.
So I worry about that. And I worry about the political discourse in the United States and in other countries, about whether or not we should continue to support Ukraine, when we have the Chinese leadership watching, every day, as to whether or not we are behind Ukraine, or not.
And that is going to factor hugely, in terms of their decision, within the Chinese leadership, as to what they do with Taiwan.
I worry about the situation in the Middle East. My Israeli friends, who are close to the Israeli government, tell me that the Israeli government has no intention of allowing Iran to achieve success as its defined in the form of having access to nuclear weapons. And can we contain whatever Israeli reaction to that might be? Are other political allies on both sides going to get drawn into whatever conflict might ensue? I don’t know.
And I worry particularly, the most of all, about the China situation. If you haven’t read this book Chip War, I really encourage you to read it. If you read that book, you will understand that there is no way the rest of the world can allow China to take control of Taiwan. Everything that we depend on technologically is resident in what’s happening in semi-conductors, and that supply chain, and Taiwan is at the heart of that. And President Macron can come back from Beijing thinking that France can somehow keep itself immune from what happens with a Chinese territorial approach towards Taiwan, and I can tell you that you cannot make planes in France, or anywhere else in the world, without access to Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing. You can’t make just about anything without access to that. And China knows that, but I worry that we’ve got a dictator now in China who has said to himself, look, I don’t want to be a leader for five years, I don’t want to be a leader for 10 years, I want to be leader for the rest of my life. I’m not prepared to broach any opposition to my role.
And the question we should be asking ourselves is, is this man prepared to end his tenure without having taken over Taiwan? That is the question.
So. What does this all mean? What this means is that there are solutions, and I don’t mean to be depressing in all these, there are solutions to all these problems. We should have learned from our experience with Germany and Hitler in the run-up to the Second World War, we should have learned about what we should have done, and spoken to Putin before he invaded Ukraine when we knew, we knew he was going to invade Ukraine. The intelligence was that good.
My point is these problems can be solved. But they’re not somebody else’s problems. They’re our problems. We all need to be involved, we need to be educated, we need to understand these problems and we need to talk about them. That’s how they’re going to get solved.
This public policy issue is not something that’s the purview of an intellectual elite, often a foreigner, that we talk about once a year. It’s our purview, it’s our responsibility.
So please, get involved. Thank you for this opportunity.