By Aaron Freeman
Never far from the sandbox. 
Surely that’s what came to mind for anyone watching the proceedings of the House committee examining the government’s proposed Clean Air Act.

According to the committee’s self-imposed deadlines, all proposed amendments were to be submitted by the end of the parliamentary recess two weeks ago. The clause-by-clause review would then take place for the subsequent two sitting weeks, resulting in a finalized bill at the end of this week.

That was the plan. But the Conservatives cancelled the first two meetings last week, and on Thursday, infantile bickering over last-minute amendments submitted by the Liberals forced the committee to adjourn without even starting the clause-by-clause. One of the Liberal amendments, a nine-page effort to establish an independent commissioner for sustainable development, was only tangentially related to the bill. The committee chair argued that the amendment was out of order because it requires government spending. 

For the Liberals, this was the point: If the committee cannot pass a bill that includes spending measures, there is no way it can churn out a bill that will meaningfully address climate change and air pollution. But that point was predictably lost in the squabbling over the procedural issues involved in dealing with the complicated amendment in the way the Liberals insisted. 

For the Tories’ part, the prime minister informed journalists on Thursday that the government will release its plan for industrial greenhouse gas emitters in two weeks, almost certainly before the Clean Air Act is tabled back in the House. This pre-empting of the committee’s process shows a disdain for Parliament, while simultaneously calling into question the very need for the Act, if, after all, the government can implement a climate change plan on its own without legislation.

If last week’s antics are anything to go by, it appears neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals want to see the committee process succeed. At the very least, there is an acute failure to focus on the task at hand. 

Regardless of your political stripe, if you are concerned the least bit about the environment, you shouldn’t care how a meaningful plan comes about. The government has every authority it needs through existing laws, but if they choose to combat air pollution and climate change through new legislation, power to them. 

If the government does not have the will to do either of these things, the opposition should learn to work together, decide on a way to share the credit associated with an overhauled Clean Air Act, and do so before Parliament disintegrates completely. If, under such a scenario, the Conservatives then decide to deep-six their own bill, the opposition parties, as well as environmental organizations, can then make sure the government wears it. 

The alternative is for the opposition parties to continue to look out only for their own narrow partisan interests. Their failure will set the stage for the Conservatives to set aside the entire process and put in place their own plan. Whether this plan is adequate or not, it is the opposition who has the most to lose from this scenario. Any opposition criticism of the government plan would face the counter-argument that the other three parties had the chance to come up with a plan but couldn’t get its act together.

There is hope the committee will proceed in a more mature fashion this week. To make up for lost time, the committee has decided to sit an unprecedented eight times in order to get through the proposed amendments before next week’s recess. While the pace will be grueling, this demonstrates that there is serious resolve to get the job done. Even still, if the committee is to do its job, there will be little room for the misbehaviours witnessed last week. 
– Aaron Freeman is the Policy Director for Environmental Defence. The opinions expressed are his own.