Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On faulty assessments

Given how much media coverage of Parliament seems to focus on Question Period, it's not often that a new, substantive issue raised in that forum (especially in the leaders' portion) manages to get entirely ignored by the media. But that looks to have happened yesterday - which is a shame, since the exchange between Jack Layton and Stephen Harper looks to signal a permanent weakening of federal environmental regulation:
Hon. Jack Layton (Toronto—Danforth, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, just weeks before a parliamentary review of the Environmental Assessment Act is to get under way where members of the House can review that legislation and strengthen it, the government has tabled a budget implementation bill. Buried right in the heart of that bill is the removal of a key trigger for federal environmental assessment, namely, whether there is federal money involved in the project.

Why is the Prime Minister gutting environmental assessment at a time when Canadians' awareness of the importance of the environment is at an all all-time high?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC):
On the contrary, Mr. Speaker. The changes in question were actually made by regulation last year, in agreement with the provinces, to simplify and remove duplication from the environmental assessment system in the country. It has been very effective and welcomed by all our provincial partners, including some NDP provincial partners.

In terms of delivering the economic stimulus, it makes sense to make these measures permanent because they work for the environment and for the economy and they are supported by all levels of government.

Hon. Jack Layton (Toronto—Danforth, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, Parliament is to conduct a planned seven-year review the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in June. This is an opportunity for members to study the issue and for the public to get involved and testify about what is working and what is not, but the government has decided to pre-empt the consultations.

Why is the government trying to ram weaker environmental protections down our throats without consultation or debate?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, on the contrary, the government made these changes last year in the economic action plan. The provinces and municipalities supported all these changes to benefit the environment and the economy. We do not want duplication in environmental protection in this country.
Now, it's true enough that regulatory changes were indeed made to weaken environmental assessments last year. But at the time, the Cons' explicit justification was that they wanted to speed up the dispersal of stimulus funds - in effect suggesting that the measure would only be required on a temporary basis to get money out the door in response to a one-time crisis. And even now Harper still hasn't separated the "stimulus" concept from his excuse for attacking the assessment process.

Having used the need for immediate stimulus as an excuse to temporarily relax the assessment process, though, the Cons are now looking to make the change applicable by legislation to permanent funding programs through their budget legislation. And all this based on Harper's apparent view that "duplication" is more of a problem than insufficient environmental protection.

Update: This wasn't obvious on my first read of the legislation. But...yikes.

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