Budget 2012: environmental laws run over by an omnibus

Since my last article for Island Tides, Parliament has been dominated by the March 29 Budget and the April 26 budget implementation bill, Bill C-38. The first set out the fiscal plan with a heavy dose of promised laws to reduce/fast-track environmental assessment; the second went far beyond the words of the budget itself, to deal stunning blows to the foundational laws to protect nature.

Given limitations of words and space, let me cover some of the main points.

Budget 2012 cuts government spending, overall, by about $5 billion for next year. (Green Scissors, my submission to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, cut by $6 billion, but went after very different things—like government advertising and the Prime Minister’s Office budget.)

Budget 2012 delivers the expected news of increasing the age of entitlement to Old Age Security to 67, while deeply cutting CIDA, CBC, Environment Canada, Statistics Canada, Parks Canada, Library and Archives, and DND (cuts there largely due to the end of involvement in Afghanistan). It also cuts $7.5 million from Elections Canada, $14 million from tourism, and over $50 million from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (leading to the announced closing of the Canada Plant Health Centre on East Saanich Road). It also did away with the youth volunteer-service program, Katimavik.

There is no mention of climate change. The hoped for extension of the eco-Energy home energy retrofit programme was not to be, ditto hopes for funding to keep the Polar Environmental Arctic Research Laboratory–Canada’s critical research lab on Ellesmere Island and the world’s closest to the North Pole–from closing. No reprieve there, nor for funding of climate science. Scientific research through the National Research Council is now directed to focus on work that is ‘business-led and industry-relevant.’ (I can just imagine what Einstein would have said about that.)

Also announced in the budget was the surprise termination of the National Round Table on Environment and Economy– the only effort remaining within the government to develop consensus between industry and environmentalists to pursue sustainable development. As I was feverishly reading the budget document in ‘lock-up’ (the invitational, embargoed preview of the budget), I scanned for any reference to climate change, I got excited when I saw the word ‘climate,’ only to focus and realize it was a discussion of the ‘investment climate.’

Instead, Budget 2012 commits the country to expansion of fossil fuel production: oil sands, pipelines, super-tankers, seismic testing and off-shore drilling. Consistent with that is the funding of an attack on environmental charities with a new $8 million to spend on going after groups alleged to be conducting ‘political’ advocacy, a charge which has been directed at groups opposing the Enbridge super-tanker scheme.

The budget was very grim news indeed, but did not really prepare me for the introduction of the omnibus Budget Implementation Bill. It’s bizarre tabling was without prior notice—not even the usual advance ‘lock-up’ with technical briefing.

I picked up my copy and made for my desk in the House, where I sat, reading, near tears, for the next three hours. C-38 is over 400 pages repealing, amending or otherwise revising 70 different pieces of federal legislation. Aspects never even hinted at in the budget itself include removing oversight from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, changing entitlement to Employment Insurance (this is still vague but appears to allow refusing EI to anyone if there is any job available, even one not in their field), and allowing the Cabinet to overrule the National Energy Board (NEB).

Not Mentioned In the Budget

Nearly half of the budget implementation bill is directed at rewriting Canada’s foundational environmental laws. The Budget itself never mentioned that the Fisheries Act was to be re-written, gutting habitat protection and restricting federal action in many instances to commercial, recreational, and Aboriginal fisheries. This essentially means that if humans aren’t catching a fish, there is no protection for its habitat.

There nothing was mentioned in the budget speech about the changes to the Species at Risk Act which put the NEB in charge of permitting destruction of endangered species and their habitat along the proposed route of a pipeline; nor about the supplanting of the NEB as arbiter of pipelines under the Navigable Waters Protection Act. The NWPA is amended such that pipelines are no longer considered an obstruction to navigation–even if they are.

Although it was abundantly clear that a large focus was to be ‘streamlining’ the environmental assessment process, the advance hype focused on time limits for hearings. It was nowhere mentioned that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act was to be repealed. C-38 wipes out the entire CEAA and introduces an entirely new law. Under the new act, ‘environmental effects’ (that which is to be studied under a federal EA), is, for many circumstances, restricted to fish and migratory birds.

Not Clear On the Concept

With so many new laws and the repealing of old laws and complex text, the Conservative ministers speaking in the House in support of C-38 frequently claim the budget implementation act will include measures that are simply not there at all, or misstate how the new laws will operate.

I go up to them afterward and, for example, ask ‘I cannot find any reference to increased tanker safety in C-38. Can you show me what section you were referring to?’ Or, ‘I can’t find anything that says environmental reviews will only be transferred to the province if the environmental assessment in that province is ‘as good or better’ than the federal one. Where is that?’ Of course, when I ask these specific questions, it is because I am pretty sure that I haven’t missed anything.

The ministers tend to look back at me, blinking slightly. They mention that it is a very long and complex bill. Yes it is, but I have read it and I missed the section they just told the House was in the Act. Where is it? Then the look on their face is like the ‘lapine’ word from Watership Down for a rabbit caught in headlights on a road: ‘tharn’.

There is much more, but for now, I urge constituents to join growing calls for removal of environmental laws from Bill C-38. The Harper Conservatives have gone too far. Previous Progressive Conservative Fisheries Ministers Tom Siddon and John Fraser have both spoken out against the horrifying changes to the Fisheries Act.

Write letters to the editors of the nation’s newspapers. Contact the other Opposition leaders (Rae and Mulcair) and urge that they join me in a strategy to derail this juggernaut of abuse. For more details about Bill C-38, go to www.elizabethmaymp.ca. Together, we can make Stephen Harper regret taking aim at nature.