Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ministers Against Portfolio, Part 1: Minister Against the Environment

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Decades ago, Canada had a cabinet position called “Minister without Portfolio”, used by the Prime Minister to keep a senior MP in Cabinet without having to assign them specific roles.

But now we see a whole new phenomenon, the “Minister Against Portfolio”. This is not an official title, but it might as well be for several ministers in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet. It’s a title for any minister whose words or actions seem to actively work against what his or her ministry is supposed to accomplish.

The most prominent would be Jim Prentice, “Minister Against the Environment”. Traditionally this minister’s duty is protecting our natural environment, foundation of our health and wealth, against harm. He should provide a check or balance against ministries whose actions could lead to environmental destruction. For example, he could prevent Natural Resources Canada from depleting our natural resources or destroying biodiversity in its rush to promote mining and logging interests. Likewise, someone must ensure the Minister of Fisheries will have something to administrate at the end of the day.

Prentice’s mantra is we must “balance” environmental and economic concerns. Setting aside that this feeds the false and harmful idea that business and ecology must oppose each other, his stance leaves the situation dangerously unbalanced. It is the job of the Environment Minister to provide balance by advocating for the environment. If he takes a “balanced”(*) view while the rest of Cabinet pushes the for-profit rape of the Earth, then there is no advocate for the Earth. It’s like having a referee, but no opposing team. I think we know how one-sided that game would be. Prentice is not supposed to sit on the fence; he’s supposed to take a side.

Well, actually, he has taken a side; unfortunately, the wrong one. The Navigable Waters Protection Act helped guard our streams, rivers, and lakes from harmful development for over a century. By gutting these protections, Prentice took the side of those who would divert, pollute, or consume our most precious resource, clean water, as a side-effect of depleting some other resource. Among the most water-intensive and water-polluting industries in Canada is the strip-mining of the tar sands. Prentice knows all about this, of course, because it takes place in his home province of Alberta. A Calgary MP in charge of the Environment Ministry? Can you say fox guarding the henhouse?

This week Prentice attacked Quebec’s new stricter auto emissions standards as “absolutely counter-productive, utterly pointless,” a “folly of attempting to go it alone”. He hasn’t done his homework – over a dozen states and provinces comprising almost half the North American auto market are heading this direction. A minister for (not against) the environment would know that.

Serious accusations should be supported by facts, so how about these: since becoming Minister (against) the Environment, Prentice has met with environmental groups only 10 times. In that same period, he has met with oil and other industry lobbyists 90 times! What’s wrong with this picture?

Instead of a player on the side of the environment, or even a referee with the impossible task of ensuring a one-sided game is fair, Jim Prentice is actually cheerleading for the other side. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Next week: Minister Against Democratic Reform.

* Sorry, this is actually a speech from when Jim Prentice was Industry Minister. But since his speaking points didn't change one iota when he moved to the Environment portfolio, does it really matter?

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

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