BOUCHARD’S LONG-AWAITED STRATEGY ON THE ENVIRONMENT CALLS FOR INCREASED CONSULTATIONS
BOUCHARD’S LONG-AWAITED STRATEGY ON THE ENVIRONMENT CALLS FOR INCREASED CONSULTATIONS
At the time, the appointment was widely viewed as a sign that Ottawa was ready to give top priority to environmental concerns. In fact, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed Lucien Bouchard to the sensitive environment ministry in December, 1988, the then-49-year-old newcomer to elected politics suddenly enjoyed influence that had been denied his predecessors in the portfolio. Mulroney’s decision to make Bouchard—one of his closest friends and confidants—a member of the most senior cabinet committees also signalled the Conservative government’s intention to make environmental protection the pillar of its social policy during its second mandate. But Bouchard’s tenure has been marked by bitter infighting with federal bureaucrats who have resisted his ambitious plans to craft a sweeping five-year national environmental plan. The internal battle forced Bouchard to postpone a planned spring unveiling of the policy until next fall. Then, last week, he brought forth in its place a discussion paper and announced that the government would hold public consultations across the country before finalizing the policy.
The discussion paper, titled The Green Plan, contains few concrete policy initiatives. For the most part, the 30-page document spells out, in often pedantic form, the major questions facing governments as they try to deal with the challenges posed by environmental degradation. The paper’s approach reflected the enormous difficulties Bouchard encountered in trying to reach a consensus on how to deal with threats to the environment. With specific policies encountering bureaucratic obstacles, Bouchard chose to pose questions rather than introduce recommendations that were certain to be controversial. But that approach frustrated many environmental activists, who were clearly hoping for more concrete measures. “Of course, we will participate in the consultations,” said Daniel Green, co-president of the Montreal-based Society to Overcome Pollution. “But we will just be giving the minister the same briefs and suggestions that we have been pushing for the last 10 years.” The lack of specifics was “a tragic disappointment,” said Michael Manolson, executive director of Greenpeace Canada. “This is not action—it is another excuse for inaction. The idea of further consultation at this point is close to ridiculous.”
Announcing the release of The Green Plan in Montreal, Bouchard acknowledged that Canadians are eager for governments to show leadership. “I can see the growing impatience of people, because they want action,” the minister said. But he also noted that public consultations are necessary to explore some unanswered questions, among them the willingness of Canadians to pay more for environmental protection. “I intend to know if people are ready to pay for the environment,” said Bouchard. “Are they ready to pay more taxes?”
At the same time, The Green Plan did, in fact, contain some concrete proposals, placing higher importance on environmental education and the creation of data banks. Ottawa also set a high priority on cleaning up British Columbia’s Fraser River, proposed creating five new national parks by 1995 and suggested new national standards for drinking water.
Still, the plan contains mostly policy options under consideration. The paper did not offer an opinion on some of the most fundamental issues facing governments. For example, Canada’s environment ministers have agreed that Canadians should cut the amount of waste they generate in half by the year 2000. But The Green Plan took no position on whether the target should be met through tighter regulations on packaging and recycling, or by a mix of higher prices and persuasion.
Bouchard did set a time frame for turning the proposals into law. He pledged that the findings of the three-week-long, 35-city consultation tour will be used to compile an environmental action plan by the fall. And he said that he had secured guarantees from his cabinet colleagues to commit funding to fulfil those policies. Although he would not reveal the amount of money earmarked for the plan, some of the minister’s associates told Maclean’s that, in meetings with Finance Minister Michael Wilson in January, he secured promises of about $5 billion for the five-year plan.
But those promises did not satisfy many environmental groups, who accused Bouchard of reneging on his initial lofty vows that environmental considerations would prevail over economic concerns. As well, some provincial environment ministers remained skeptical of Bouchard’s ability to carry through on his pledges. Said Ontario Environment Minister James Bradley: “The real proof of how effective it is going to be is in the dollars and cents that are allocated to it, and the political will to carry out the tough decisions.”
But Bouchard was not without supporters. Said Digby McLaren, president of the Ottawabased Royal Society of Canada, a 108-year-old group of eminent scientists: “Bouchard brings goodwill to a ghastly problem, and he has my sympathy.” And for his part, B.C. Environment Minister John Reynolds said that he welcomes the consultative process. “We need it,” he said.
“Something that sounds awfully good in Ottawa sounds totally different in another part of the country.”
For the most part, business spokesmen reacted cautiously to The Green Plan. Aalben Chmelauskas, director of environmental control for Vancouver-based forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., said that the government’s aim of making Canada “the world’s most environmentally friendly country” by the year 2000 was laudable. But he noted that Bouchard’s document left many issues unsettled. Declared Chmelauskas: “One of the major issues is going to be ‘How green is green?’ ”
Indeed, other business leaders also called for Ottawa to clarify its plans. Said Adam Zimmerman, chairman of Toronto-based Noranda Forest Inc.: “Business hates uncertainty. Whatever the rules may be, it is better we know what they are.” And senior environment officials acknowledged that The Green Plan does not eliminate those concerns. Said one senior bureaucrat: “Most people just want to know what the policy will mean for their specific industry. The Green Plan is about the more esoteric world of structures and decision-making.”
Meanwhile, it was also clear that Bouchard had faced many obstacles in developing his plan. Last November, he presented a 200-page draft of his proposals to cabinet—intending to table a master policy this spring. But cabinet rejected Bouchard’s plan, calling it too unfocused, and so the minister announced in February that the plan would not be introduced until the fall of 1990. Critics say that the setback illustrates that Bouchard does not wield significant power in cabinet. But some officials said that analysis was wrong. Said one senior Tory: “Because of Bouchard’s clout, nobody wants to take him on.” Instead, he said, bureaucrats in other departments created obstacles while the environment department pursued a unique—even bizarre—process in developing its policy.
Environment department officials did not follow the customary practice of circulating draft copies of their policy proposals among senior bureaucrats from other key ministries. Instead, they convened group sessions with staff from other departments, who were shown images on a screen while an environment official outlined the policy goals. Some civil servants criticized the process as counterproductive. Said one senior bureaucrat in another ministry: “The process was almost mysterious. All we got were subliminal messages with oblique references to policy that might or might not mean something.”
Some insiders say that, by undertaking a public consultation process, Bouchard is attempting to weaken resistance to his plan. Said David Runnalls, an environmental analyst at the Ottawa-based Institute for Research on Public Policy: “Bouchard may be trying to rally support for tougher measures by building a political constituency for himself among ordinary Canadians.” But Green declared, “Polls tell us that the constituency for environmental action already exists.” And a senior environment department official said that Bouchard had won full cabinet support for the consultation process—and for following through with a comprehensive policy in the fall. “If Bouchard was not in harmony with his colleagues, what he is doing would be a very risky political move,” said the official.
At the same time, environment department officials also claimed privately that their attempts to draft strict regulations for polluters were hindered by the absence of available technologies. Bouchard said last week that roughly half the funding in his five-year policy would be directed towards environmental science. Still, critics insisted that environmental technologies are already sufficiently developed to justify imposing tough regulations on at least some industries. Said Runnalls: “The technology to solve problems such as dirty pulp-and-paper emissions already exists.”
Clearly, Bouchard has enough credibility to withstand the current attacks. And the Tories said that they plan to introduce a new law governing environmental reviews of industrial projects in May, in order to address one major outstanding issue. But with his renewed promise of a policy to help clean up Canada, Bouchard has again raised expectations. And as he acknowledged last week: “We are on the brink of giving answers. We must not fail.”
BRUCE WALLACE with HAL QUINN in Vancouver, JOHN HOWSE in Calgary and LISA VAN DUSEN in Ottawa
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