The Harper Government™ has made no secret of its plan for environmental protection, planning, and assessment; it’s a necessary complement to its economic strategy, which essentially consists of extracting as much wealth from the ground as quickly as possible, unencumbered by niceties like public consultation or the free, prior, informed consent of affected Aboriginal peoples.
To the extent they can be known before the actual Budget Implementation Act is unveiled, the details of these budget measures are well covered elsewhere, in the media and by environmental law organisations like West Coast Environmental Law and the Canadian Environmental Law Association as well as the Progressive Economics Forum and others.
What’s truly fascinating is how it’s being done. For many months speeches and interviews by Prime Minister Harper and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver (and an extraordinary open letter from Oliver) have echoed and amplified the demands of the oil patch, the mining companies, and key provincial governments keen to stop the federal government (and the public) meddling in the “approvals” process for resource development projects. They wanted to make sure they established the official version of reality in the public’s mind, vilifying and marginalizing any other perspective – especially those pushing for environmental policies based on established principles of sound resource management and experience on the ground.
They even manipulated the statutory review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act into providing a blueprint for the desired changes, by cutting off, ignoring, or selectively quoting testimony, and then by quoting their own committee members to fill in any parts that industry representatives had failed to include.
But the response was not positive – from experts or from the public. Tar sands supporters were happy, but a lot of people responded strongly against being told their concerns for the environment were not legitimate, and they were insulted by the implication that they were just manipulated by shady foreign-funded environmental organizations. It became obvious that the proposed changes would create more chaos, not greater certainty, that the government had no knowledge or understanding of what it was doing, and that it wasn’t interested in finding out.
A broad range of environmental groups came together to support a vision for an environmental assessment process that is more participatory, rigorous, and consistent – not less – and when it emerged that the government was also contemplating removing key habitat protection provisions from the Fisheries Act, a wide range of scientists and specialists joined a growing public opposition. As this process drags out, the government could eventually risk having its ‘clients’ in the extractive industries discover that a rubber stamp does not constitute a “social licence” to operate.
And so it came to pass that the strong, stable, majority Conservative government pushed back its own deadlines month after week until it could once again hide major policy changes in the budget bill, all the while repeating the same speaking points ad nauseam with all the bravado it could muster. When the Conservatives did this as a minority government they were accused of gamesmanship and subverting the Parliamentary process, but it was the only way they could easily push through a range of ill-advised initiatives. This time it looks more like simple cowardice.