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Hill Dispatches: Mulcair's Dutch Disease comment may put the environment back on the front burner

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Green Party Leader Elizabeth May had it right, way back at the end of March, when she said of the Conservatives' most recent budget that is was "tough on nature."

Here are what some might call the "dirty eighteen," the federal environmental laws the budget amends and other programs and processes it changes or abolishes.

Canadian Environmental Assessment Act: amended to drastically limit the definition of "Environmental effects."

-Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency: strict time limits put on environmental reviews; downloading of environmental assessments to provinces.

-Canadian Environmental Protection Act: looser rules for waste at sea; weaker protection for species at risk.

-
Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act: goodbye; it's over for this government and Canada is out.

-Fisheries Act: will protect only fish of "commercial, aboriginal, and recreational" value.

-Navigable Waters Protection Act: pipelines and power lines will be exempt.

-National Energy Board Act: reviews will be limited to two years, and decisions can be reversed by Cabinet.

-Species at Risk Act: eliminates conditions to protect critical habitat affected by projects.

-Parks Canada Agency Act: reporting requirements reduced.

-Canadian Oil and Gas Operations Act: exempt pipelines from the Navigational Waters Act.

-Coasting Trade Act: will promote seismic testing, allowing increased off-shore drilling.

-
Nuclear Safety Control Act: environmental assessments moved to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission which is mandated to promote the industry not protect the public.

-Canada Seeds Act: inspection of seed crops transferred from Canadian Food Inspection Agency to the private sector.

-National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy: abolished.

-Charitable Status of Environmental Organizations: $8 million to the Canada Revenue Agency to target groups that oppose, or even question, federal government policy.

-Water Programs: killing of several water-related programs; others cut severely.

-Municipal Water and Wastewater Survey: killed.

-Monitoring Effluent Program of Environment Canada that measures the quality of effluent discharge: cut by 20 per cent.

Many of the environmental initiatives on the Government's hit list date back to the Progressive Conservative Mulroney Government. 

In those days Conservatives could be proud to call themselves environmentalists. Two of them, former Fisheries Ministers Tom Siddon and John Fraser, signed a letter to the Prime Minister literally pleading with him to reconsider the proposed radical changes to the Fisheries Act. 

The former ministers - and virtually the entire scientific community - believe that affording protection only to certain species will be harmful to the chain of life in Canadian waters. Fish that are not themselves of recreational or commercial value provide food for other more valued species, for instance. Destroying those "unimportant" species will affect those we deem of value.

And changing the Fisheries Act is only one of the many environmental rollbacks buried in this omnibus legislation - not to mention changes to Employment Insurance, pensions and the immigration system.

The Budget Implementation Bill, C-38, is a huge and in many ways radical piece of legislation and the Government is trying to ram it through Parliament at ultra high speed. This week there are both House and Senate Committees considering different aspects of the Bill and, in some cases, they are sitting late into the night. 

Why, then, the fuss over Dutch Disease?

Given the portentous nature of the Budget Bill, one might wonder at the disproportionate national media fascination with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's rather mild comments on the tar sands (which he even politely called the "oil sands.") 

After all, Mulcair's predecessor, Jack Layton, had, at one time, proposed scrapping the tar sands project altogether. 

Mulcair's current position is that an NDP government would continue to sanction extraction of bitumen in the Athabasca tar sands, but would require that it be done in a sustainable way. 

In addition, in one interview Mulcair argued that natural resources exports (including those from the tar sands) have driven up the value of Canada's dollar making Canadian manufactured goods more expensive and harder to sell.

This phenomenon, Mulcair said, is sometimes called the Dutch Disease, because the Netherlands suffered just such a consequence for its manufacturing sector after the discovery of North Sea oil.

One could take issue with that economic analysis. One could argue that the benefits to the manufacturing heartland of resource development outweigh whatever it may have lost from a high dollar. Or, one could argue, as the Institute for Research in Public Policy did, that if Canada has the Dutch Disease it only has a mild case.

All of that is fair play.

What is not fair play is the calumny rained on Mulcair's head by some in the national media, notably the CBC's and National Post's Rex Murphy.

When Murphy took to the airwaves to denounce Mulcair he did not even show the simple courtesy of recognizing that the term Dutch Disease - arcane as it may be - has an actual and widely accepted meaning.

Murphy abandoned anything resembling journalistic responsibility and blithely mocked the words "Dutch" and "disease." He just as much as suggested that Mulcair believes that Albertans all walk around in wooden shoes and have been stricken with some terrible pox that comes from eating Gouda cheese.

A politician's speech and, ironically, an unexpected opportunity

Mulcair is nothing if not smart. He has no doubt learned his lesson about too freely trotting out the esoteric and specialized vocabulary of economic science. Politicians generally succeed when they inspire and enlighten; not when they befuddle and baffle.

However, nothing Mulcair said merited the kind of contemptuous vitriol it attracted. Referring to some sort of pathology of the Low Countries may have been an infelicitous choice of words; but it was a perfectly moderate and reasonable comment.

There were all kinds of portents of doom in the wake of that original Dutch Disease statement, and the overwrought media (and predictable Conservative Party) reaction to it.

Many who wish Mulcair and the NDP well were quite fearful that the permanently-on-war-footing Harperites had been given a handy club with which to beat the new NDP Leader - just as they had successfully tormented the two previous Leaders of the Opposition.

It does not, however, seem to have turned out that way.

As Mulcair prepares to visit Fort McMurray and the tar sands this Thursday, it's quite possible that this whole episode may even play, on balance, in his and his party's favour.

Certainly, no visit anywhere in Canada by a leader of the opposition has ever attracted quite so much attention.

And Mulcair's preoccupation with the federal government's role in assuring the sustainability of the tar sands contrasts starkly with the current government's plans, as outlined in the Budget Bill, to virtually abandon its responsibility for protecting the environment.

It's the air, water and soil - stupid!

Here's what Mulcair told reporters about the NDP's tar sands approach on Monday:

"Since the beginning we've made it clear that we're very concerned that the federal government is not enforcing federal law - the Navigable Waters Act, the Fisheries Act, migratory birds, not looking at cumulative health effects, not looking at groundwater, not monitoring the water in any way shape or form.  A year ago, they talked about monitoring water.  Now they're dropping it completely.  Some of the people who were supposed to be on that committee haven't even been convened to a meeting.  So these are all things that the federal government is not doing."

Notice that many of the federal acts Mulcair accuses the government of failing to enforce are on the Budget Bill's hit list. One would think the national media might find that to be a more substantive matter of interest than notional illnesses that afflict Netherlanders. The government has its hand on the legislative tiller here. It is the government that intends to legislate radical changes in environmental policies and practices; not the Opposition.

It will be interesting to see how the Alberta trip unfolds. It's quite possible that Mulcair's visit will be as much an opportunity to focus on the real environmental costs of the tar sands as on their much-touted economic benefits.

This government has done everything possible to avoid direct and embarrassing discussion of its environmental policies and record. Why else would it stick a huge range of measures related to the environment into the fine print of a budget?

Ironically, Mulcair's Dutch Disease comment and the ensuing brouhaha may in the end flush the Harper government out of hiding and force it to talk about matters on which it would prefer to remain silent.

 

Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.

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