David Akin, CTV News
 
OTTAWA — Federal governments — be they Liberal or Conservative — continue to fail to make decisions and implement policies that would protect Canada’s natural environment, says the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.
In his first report since becoming interim Commissioner earlier this year, Ron Thompson says the “ambition and momentum” that once existed when it came to environmentally sustainable policies “have faded and that strategies are a major disappointment.”
Environmental advocates were heartened by Thompson’s conclusions but share his disappointment that, despite repeated calls for actions over the last decade from a series of commissioners, the federal government seems unable to become more green.
“This is the government’s feel-good voluntary approach to environmental issues,” said Aaron Freeman, policy director of Environmental Defence, an advocacy group. “It’s a failed approach.”
Thompson called on the federal government to carry out a thorough review of what needs to be fixed.
Auditor General Sheila Fraser backed up Thompson’s view saying, “After a decade, sustainable development strategies are a major disappointment. For the most part, senior managers in departments have not demonstrated that they take the strategies seriously and few parliamentary committees have considered them.”
It is the first time that the reports of the Auditor General and the Environment Commissioner have been released simultaneously. Some advocates, such as Freeman, are worried that news of the Environment Commissioner’s findings will be overshadowed by the Auditor General’s findings on such issues as security holes in government departments and problems with military’s health care system.
And both the Auditor General’s report and the Environment Commissioner’s report may be swamped by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty who is expected to announce broad tax cuts in an economic update at 4 p.m. today.
In his report, Thompson said that, despite repeated commitments, there is still no sustainable development strategy for the federal government as a whole to guide the efforts of the 32 departments and agencies that are to produce environmentally sustainable strategies.
Moreover, senior bureaucrats at each department have received orders to produce sustainable development strategies that are “ambiguous and optional.”
“Many of the significant weaknesses that have been noted over the past decade persist,” Thompson wrote. “It is clear that the strategies are not helping or encouraging departments to take environmental issues into account.”
The 32 federal government departments that are required to produce and adopt environmentally sustainable strategies spend billions of dollars every year and have a significant influence on just about every aspect of Canadian society, the Commissioner notes. And yet, he says, few senior bureaucrats take these strategies seriously and their political masters — the MPs who supervise the departments — rarely hold them to account.
The commissioner says that the Conservative government issued new guidelines for environmentally sustainable practices for government departments shortly after it took office in mid-2006. But Thompson says that “the new federal goals are not defined in specific or objectively measurable terms and do not provide common measures that departments could use to monitor and report on their progress.”
The new guidelines issued during the Conservatives’ first year in office are silent when it comes to the government’s expectations for clean air, clean water, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, or sustainable development and use of natural resources.
Environment Canada, the report says, is the lead department when it comes to issuing these guidelines. Rona Ambrose was minister when these guidelines were issued in 2006. She has since been replaced by John Baird.
“We conclude that the Government of Canada and, in particular, Environment Canada have made unsatisfactory progress toward providing meaningful direction and guidance to departments and agencies,”
Thompson wrote. “We expected Environment Canada to have managed this issue more consistently and pro-actively.”
One of the problems with the issue is that Environment Canada has little or no statutory or regulatory authority to force departments to change. The Conservatives have also slashed budgets of key Environment Canada agencies such as the Canadian Wildlife Service.
“It’s a demoralized department,” Freeman said.