The Slow Pace of Parliament
Policy Magazine, June 2017
Right after the 2015 election, I wrote a two-part blog titled “Fixing what Harper broke.” It serves as an ongoing checklist of the areas that need attention — from immigration and criminal justice policies to labour laws and environmental regs. I was confident that, while the Trudeau Liberals were a long way from the Green Party on policy, we were on the same page in wanting to restore the fabric of laws, policy approaches and spending that had existed before 2006.
Now that we have had 20 months under the new Trudeau administration, a pattern has become clear. Those things that were easily fixed were done quickly and early. Scientists and diplomats were unmuzzled. Liberal ministers set a more respectful tone in Parliament. But repairing damage by legislation is slow, painful and potentially futile. Some areas have seen relatively swift action. Anti-trade union laws have been repealed. Citizenship laws are well on their way to being restored to pre-Harper respect for the principle that citizenship cannot be stripped for political motive. But in other areas, fixing what Harper broke is sinking into a sea of consultation exercises. And restoring spending is more smoke and mirrors than real. Not to mention the Trudeau government’s broken promise on electoral reform. So much for — in Trudeau’s own words — 2015 being “the last election under first-past-the-post.”
I believe these patterns apply in many policy areas, but to provide relevant examples, let me focus on funding for climate science and action to undo the damage to environmental laws done by the 2012 omnibus budget bills (C-38 and C-45).
Under former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science was created in 2000 and, over two budget cycles, granted $110 million. It was credited with effective deployment of these resources, yielding more money in research grants to universities and other institutes, as well as other levels of government than it had received from the federal government. The funding ran out in 2010, and was never restored under Harper. The CFCAS attempted to stay afloat, changing its name to the Canada Climate Forum.
I had fully expected the Canadian Climate Forum (CCF) to receive funding to start rebuilding the climate research programs that had been abandoned. Trudeau claimed his Cabinet decisions would be science-based. So surely, the Liberals would fund climate science activities beyond government. But, no. The CCF is about to be wrapped up for good. The excuse that I have heard is that “We don’t need more science. We know climate change is real.” This is an outrageous abdication of responsibility. Donald Trump and Stephen Harper shut down climate science because they didn’t want to have to act on uncomfortable truths. Now the Liberals are doing the same, but for nobler reasons? Are we to accept that they already know everything when, in fact, the need for up-to-date science is critical?
Another area where we needed swift action was in restoring the environmental assessment laws as they existed before 2006. Trudeau and his Liberal candidates were clear through the 2015 election campaign that the EA process was “broken” and that the National Energy Board, which had never had authority to conduct environmental reviews before 2012, was making a hash of the bastardized process. The Liberal platform promised action on the multiple areas eroded by C-38 and C-45 — the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (repealed and substituted), the Fisheries Act (significantly weakened) and the Navigable Waters Protection Act (from which Harper removed over 99 per cent of Canada’s inland waters and re-named it the “Navigation Protection Act”). The NEB itself also needed to be restored to legitimacy after changes Harper’s administration made to its functions.
Instead of moving quickly to reduce the number of projects starting reviews under the broken process (recognizing such reviews would be conducted to completion under Harper-era laws), the Liberals launched four different consultation exercises. The two most robust were well-funded expert panels on EA and on the NEB. For the Fisheries Act and Navigation Protection Act, the reviews were undertaken by their respective parliamentary committees. Finally, all the recommendations are in. Sadly, the brief review by the transportation committee missed the mark by a mile on repairing protections for navigable waters, but the expert panels, into which the government must have invested millions, did really solid work.
For example, the EA panel, chaired by Canada’s former Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development Johanne Gélinas and peopled with experts from environmental law and resource backgrounds, did a superb job. It spent seven months travelling Canada, holding full-day public engagement sessions. On April 5, 2017 its recommendations were released. The EA panel urged that the NEB not conduct EA, but that impact assessment be carried out by a single agency, to be granted quasi-judicial status. The panel’s thoughtful report was based on advice from thousands of Canadians. So what has the government done with it? It has put it on a website to invite public comment.
In terms of legislation, the first session of the 42nd Parliament has passed only half as many bills as did the 2011 majority Conservative House in its first session. So, as journalists note that we have not passed a lot of legislation this session, watch for the web consultations on the bills we should have had for first reading already. Indeed, the government introduced new Access to Information legislation and a national security bill only at the beginning of this week, the last week of the sitting, with no chance of second reading before the summer recess. I am not sure when the rubber will hit the road, but it’s now safe to assume we haven’t finished the consultations.