CANADA

Environmental politics

The government responds to public concerns

BRUCE WALLACE April 17 1989
CANADA

Environmental politics

The government responds to public concerns

BRUCE WALLACE April 17 1989

Environmental politics

CANADA

The government responds to public concerns

Thomas McMillan saw firsthand the remarkable rise in the political currency of the environment. He says that when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed him as federal environment minister in August, 1985, it was clearly part of a political strategy to contain an issue. “There was a feeling in the Conservative party, in caucus and in cabinet, that the environment was a left-wing issue— and that I was seen as enough of a pinko to cater to that constituency,” McMillan, currently heading an environmental task force for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, recalled in an interview last week. But then his threeyear term paralleled the unexpected evolution of the environment from an issue on the political fringe to a central component of the Tory government’s agenda. Said McMillan, who lost the portfolio when he was defeated in last fall’s federal election: “Toward the end of the mandate, even the most conservative MPs wanted me with them in front of their local media. It was good politics to be seen with the environment minister.”

Last week, Mulroney underlined the priority he now attaches to the issue by making the environment one of the pillars of his government’s speech from the throne. His government pledged, among other things, to toughen regulations governing toxic chemicals and to protect the quality of the Arctic environment. The potency of environmental issues was evident in the widespread public outrage over last month’s massive oil spill off the Alaskan coast (page 49). But critics claim that Mulroney’s conversion to the cause came only after the environment began showing up in polls as a leading concern of Canadians. And they point to other government decisions—notably its commitment to develop fossil-fuel energy megaprojects such as the Hibernia oilfield off the Newfoundland coast—as evidence that the government’s action does not match its rhetoric.

Still, Mulroney has given Lucien Bouchard, his new environment minister, unprecedented authority in the post. Bouchard is one of nine ministers on the government’s powerful operations committee, which meets every Monday morning to set the government’s agenda and tactics. As well, Mulroney granted Bouchard the power to intervene in other cabinet decisions where environmental considerations are part of federal initiatives. And last month, the Prime Minister appointed a 24-member national round table on the environment and the economy. The committee, comprising industrialists, environmentalists and politicians, will advise Mulroney on ways of promoting economic growth without harming the environment.

But with little money available for ambitious social programs, Mulroney’s emphasis on the environment may be one way of stifling criticism that his government lacks imagination in noneconomic areas. Acknowledged Allan Gregg, chairman of the polling firm Decima Research Ltd., which does surveys for the Conservatives: “The Tories are perceived to be good economic managers at the expense of social justice.” Now, even in tough fiscal times, government sources say that the Tories are likely to add $100 million to the environment department’s $786-million annual budget.

Still, critics point to the fact that the Tories’ first environment minister, Suzanne Blais-Grenier, had $46 million slashed from her department budget in 1985, a move that stained the government’s reputation among environmentalists. Said one former adviser to Mulroney: “We paid an enormous political price for very little savings.” The cuts damaged morale in the environment department, already beset by other controversies during Blais-Grenier’s 11-month tenure as minister. “I inherited a department in shambles,” said McMillan.

McMillan said the disarray worried the Prime Minister. “Mulroney is not terribly knowledgeable about the environment, but he has some gut feel for the issue,” he said. “I could see that he felt the issue was getting away from us.” As well, Mulroney’s major environmental initiative—the push for an acid rain treaty with the United States—was foundering on former president Ronald Reagan’s indifference. Said one former adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office: “It took a long time to convince the PM that no treaty was possible as long as Reagan was in office. As the election approached, it was pretty obvious that we were going to need a more comprehensive environmental program.”

Mulroney’s attempt to craft a new environmental agenda got a boost from the 1987 report from the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Previously, most economic conservatives had fought environmental protection regulations on the grounds that they were too expensive and hampered economic growth. But the Brundtland report introduced the concept of “sustainable development,” which argued that, while economic growth was essential to long-term international security, it must be accomplished in environmentally sound ways.

In Canada, many leading members of the business commmunity quickly embraced sustainable development. Said David Buzzelli, president of Dow Chemical Canada Inc. of Sarnia, Ont., one of Mulroney’s round-table appointees: “It is an optimistic philosophy which finds common ground between industry and environmental groups which have traditionally held different views.” But many environmentalists charge that sustainable development is a flawed concept that has allowed conservatives, such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to claim environmentalist credentials without surrendering their commitment to economic expansion. Said Digby McLaren, president of the Royal Society of Canada: “Sustainable development is a myth because it implies that we can keep on growing without damaging the environment. It allows politicians and businessmen to jump on the environmental bandwagon.”

Mulroney’s critics say that Ottawa’s financial backing of energy megaprojects makes the government’s defence of the environment less credible. They charge that projects such as Hibernia will perpetuate Canada’s dependency on fossil fuels, which damage the environment. Acknowledged former Mulroney adviser Ross Reid, now a Tory MP from St. John’s, Nfld.: “I support Hibernia because my constituents need jobs. But the environmental dangers make it a really tough issue for me to deal with.”

For now, the opposition parties appear to have trained their political fire on Bouchard, whom they perceive to be brash and politically naive. Many Tories, too, worry that a promise Bouchard made in January to veto any economic projects that threaten the environment has raised expectations among environmentalists to unrealistic levels. Said one senior bureaucrat: “Bouchard needs someone with good political instincts to keep him out of trouble and he is not getting that advice right now.” And, said McMillan, “environmentalists are militant and impatient. He will learn how easy it is to raise expectations and how hard it is to meet them.”

As well, Mulroney has shown that he can play politics with environmental issues. Last September at the United Nations, the Prime Minister announced a plan to create an international centre for sustainable development in Winnipeg that would

advise business and governments on how to minimize damage to the environment. But Manitoba Tories later said privately that they were worried that the centre would not be built because Mulroney was angry at Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, who withdrew his support for the Prime Minister’s Meech Lake constitutional accord last December. Not until last week’s throne speech reaffirmed Ottawa’s commitment to establish the centre were those fears soothed.

Still, Bouchard and Mulroney have yet to convince skeptical Canadians of their sincerity. “When you are selling the environment, you must have the conviction of a missionary or the public will perceive you to be a fraud,” said one former provincial environment minister. However, said pollster Gregg, “The Tories know that it is not enough just to say they care.” But until the Tories demonstrate that resolve, questions will remain about their cornmitment to the environment.

BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa

BRUCE WALLACE