MURRAY CAMPBELL
Everybody can read the polls and see that the voters are hot for
environmental issues but it’s a minefield for political parties looking to
take advantage of this.
The Ontario government thinks it has the ticket to prove its green
credentials with a new bill that updates creaky, 36-year-old legislation
dealing with endangered species to provide more protection for plants and
animals. Environmentalists love the proposed legislation, Bill 184, and say
it would be the toughest of its kind in Canada.
The opposition parties say they love it, too. But they’re walking on the
wild side by agreeing with an array of critics who say the Liberal
government is pushing the bill too hard and without enough consultation. The
tussle over the legislation illustrates how politics will be practised in
this green-crazy era with an election just around the corner.
“It’s an excellent indicator of where the parties are lining up on the
environment,” said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence,
a Toronto lobby group. “All the parties are alleging that they’re going to
have green platforms for the election and so the endangered species debate
is going to be the first real indicator of whether that’s true or not.”
The Liberals certainly have the inside track now. The government drafted
this bill after consulting with farmers, developers, environmentalists and
resource industries and it gave the public an opportunity to comment by
posting it on its environmental bill of rights website. Natural Resources
Minister David Ramsay calls Bill 184 the “gold standard” in species
protection and a broad array of environmental groups agree. “If passed in
its current form, it will be the best in the country,” Dr. Smith said.
The bill changes Ontario’s approach to protecting endangered species. Under
the current 1971 law, no species is protected until the government decides
to do so, which is a cumbersome process. Just 42 species have been granted
protection but more than 175 plants and animals are deemed to be at risk of
disappearing. The new law, using a “presumption of protection” rule,
stipulates that all species that have been scientifically assessed as being
at risk would get automatic protection.
Mr. Ramsay defends his government’s consultation and accuses his critics of
nit-picking. Jamie Lim, president of the Ontario Forest Industries
Association, says it was a one-way street. “Going to a stakeholders’ meeting
and being told what the bill is going to say is, in my opinion, not
consultation.”
The opposition parties aren’t disputing the aims of the bill but, echoing
the concerns of the groups that the government consulted, they are saying
the consultation hasn’t been extensive enough.
The Progressive Conservatives, mindful of their rural base in the southern
part of the province, complain that farmers and landowners stand to lose
revenue if an endangered species is found on their land. Critic Norm Miller
says the party will support Bill 184 but wants “full and public
consultations” to correct its flaws.
The New Democrats, looking to their stronghold in the north, say the
government hasn’t met its constitutional requirements to consult with
aboriginal communities. They are also lending an ear to the forest industry,
which fears the legislation will take away land that could be harvested.
It’s a particularly interesting place for the NDP to find itself because it
believes it is the most environmentally progressive of the three parties.
The 10-member caucus will decide today how to vote on second reading but
critic Gilles Bisson denies that a schism has developed between the party
and the environmental movement. “We’re generally supportive of the
legislation but we also represent other parties of Ontario . . . who have
problems and there are very serious concerns that they raise,” he said.
Mr. Miller says the Liberals want to get the bill passed this spring because
“they look forward to having something on their election brochure that is
going to be appealing and make them look like a green party.” But here’s the
opposition’s dilemma, as outlined by Dr. Smith: “There’s no way a party is
going to be able to pass itself as environmentally friendly during the
election if it opposes this legislation.”
Behind those compelling polling numbers, it’s rough politics, green style.