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A short history of new Finance Minister Joe Oliver

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Photo: Flickr/Toban Black

Joe Oliver, Canada's new federal Minister of Finance, made quite a name for himself during his tenure as Minister of Natural Resources. In his former position Oliver proved himself a fierce and outspoken defender of the oilsands as the economic engine of Canada (even if he did tend to fudge the facts). But is it just the oilsands he wants to protect from the criticisms of the public? Or is there more to his fondness for corporations in general, even at the expense of public health and the national interest?

With Oliver moving to the helm of the country's finances, perhaps it's time to take a look back over his notable career.

Oliver, it should be pointed out, is no slouch. He obtained both his Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Civil Law from McGill, one of Canada's most prestigious universities. After making the Quebec Bar, he graduated with anMBA from Harvard's Graduate School of Business. Before he was elected to Parliament, he enjoyed a high-flying career in the corporate sector of which he seems so fond. First a career in the investment banking industry, starting with Merrill Lynch. Then on to the executive directorship of the Ontario Securities Commission before becoming president and CEO of the Investment Dealers Association of Canada.

According to his bio on Prime Minister Harper's very own website, he also played prominent roles as chair of the advisory committee of the International Council of Securities Associations and as chair of the Consultative Committee of the International Association of Securities Commissions. A graduate of the Directors Education Program at the Rotman School of Management, he was also a member of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Business Valuators, and he sat on the board of the Canadian Securities Institute Research Foundation.

Somewhere along the way (Harvard? Rotman? Harper?) he learned the virtues of spin, because he has proven more than willing to muddy the truth in his mission to convince Canadians, Americans and Europeans that the oilsands are a clean, responsible and sustainable source of energy. His use of little black lies and greenwash is encyclopedic. Here are a few of his best:

  • In an open letter in the Globe and Mail and the Wall Street Journal, Oliver attacked Canadians who oppose oilsands expansion and advocate for investment in cleaner sources of energy, calling them "radicals…with radical ideological agenda[s]" who "use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada's national economic interest."

  • In a Chicago press conference that was part of a formal junket to promote the beleaguered Keystone XL pipeline, Oliver claimed the oilsands are a "greener" source of energy without mentioning, of course, what the dirtier ones were.

  • Oliver told a major newspaper (Montreal's La Presse) that, "Scientists have recently told us that our fears (on climate change) are exaggerated," even as the International Energy Agency had just released a report that stated two-thirds of the existing known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground to achieve the global commitment (Canada included) to prevent average global warming of more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels (of which Oliver apparently had no idea). (It turned out that the "scientists" to which Oliver referred was a single climate change denying columnist named Lawrence Solomon). In response twelve of Canada's climate scientists and energy experts wrote an open letter to Oliver, expressing their concern that the minister was not taking climate change seriously.

  • Recently Oliver told a New York audience Canada was emerging as a "21st century energy superpower," despite having no climate legislation and no renewable energy strategy. 

As I pointed out in a previous post, it's abundantly clear that where the oilsands are concerned, Oliver and other Canadian politicians continue to ignore the ethical and practical guidelines (the Competition Bureau's Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisersthe federal government has set out for businesses, advertisers and "any person who promotes a product/service or business interest who is likely to benefit from the product's environmental claims," so as to avoid using "misleading or deceptive claims relating to an implied or expressed environmental benefit."

Is Oliver's selective use (and misuse) of the facts restricted to the oilsands? Turns out, he has had a history of soliciting for numerous corporate interests along the way.

Asbestos, Canada's cancer export

While the rest of the world worked to ban the use of chrysotile (or "white") asbestos because it is a carcinogen that also causes lung disease, Oliver (along with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Environment Minister Peter Kent) continued to claim that (like climate change) it wasn't as bad as it appeared.

"Mr. Speaker, as I said, all the recent scientific reviews show that chrysotile can be used in a safe and controlled manner," he argued in Parliament on June 21, 2011.

That same year, Canada surprised the world at the meeting of the Rotterdam Convention in Geneva when it single-handedly prevented chrysotile asbestos fibers to be added to the Rotterdam Convention's list of hazardous substances. This would have mandated that exporters of asbestos use proper labelling, include directions on safe handling, and inform purchasers of any known restrictions or bans. It wouldn't ban its production, but signatory nations would be able to ban the importation of chemicals listed in the treaty, and exporting countries are obliged make sure that producers within their jurisdiction comply.

Montreal toxicologist Daniel Green, who has been tracking asbestos use in Quebec for years, told Al Jazeera he disagreed wholeheartedly with Oliver's public statements. Green says the asbestos industry has killed people in Canada and all over the world.

"If there was a place where one could answer the question: can asbestos be used safely, it's here in Quebec…. Asbestos has killed and is still killing Quebeckers. It should not leave the ground and kill people in other countries."

The Australian Upper House passed a motion to pressure the Canadian government to end policies supporting asbestos exports, and growing global pressure eventually forced Canada to stop supporting its last asbestos mine, in 2012. The Harper government did not block the listing of chrysotile asbestos at the 2013 meeting of the Rotterdam Convention. But the message is clear (and sordid): "If you can make money from exporting a hazardous substance, then oppose safety requirements, as they might damage profits," wrote Kathleen Ruff, co-coordinator of the Rotterdam Convention Alliance, in the Toronto Starrecently. Sounds eerily similar to a bitumen-inspired logic, doesn't it?

Salmon farming

What about salmon farms? Where there's a profit, there's a way. Since the federal government passed omnibus budget bill C-38 in the summer of 2012, which gutted several pieces of environmental legislation in Canada, aquaculture projects in Canada are no longer assessed for environmental impacts by the federal government. And in Nova Scotia at least, they won't undergo a provincial environmental assessment either.

"I'm absolutely gobsmacked," said Marike Finlay. "I really cannot believe this is happening in Canada."

Finlay, it turns out, is president of Association for the Preservation of the Eastern Shore (APES), a group that actively opposes two new salmon farming operations in Nova Scotia's Spry Harbour and Shoal Bay, bringing the number of ocean-based salmon feedlot sites that have been proposed or approved in Nova Scotia to six. What's astounding to Finlay is that unlike the industrial salmon feedlots that have gone before them, neither Shoal Bay nor Spry Harbour will undergo an environmental assessment, despite the fact federal environmental impact assessments were prepared for both sites.

"We spent huge amounts of time, energy, and expertise making our reply," says Finlay. "We had marine biologists, wildlife specialists, specialists in tides and currents, local fishermen's knowledge. And we replied to each environmental assessment for each of those sites."

But Joe Oliver, the defender of all things corporate, defended the federal policy changes. "We did eliminate the review of some projects which were inconsequential," Oliver told CBC Radio's "The House." "And that's been used as sort of an instance of reduced environmental protection. In fact, we've been focussing on the projects that can have an environmental impact, and not whether a rink should be set up in a national park."

Open net pen fish farms are anything but inconsequential. Citizens and non-governmental scientists on both coasts have been expressing concerns over the environmental impacts of open net pens, calling for moratoriums on further licensing of farms and consumer boycotts of farmed fish. Issues are wide ranging and include destruction of ocean habitat underneath pens, use of chemicals and pesticides that kill other marine life, proliferation of viruses (infectious salmon anaemia) and parasites (sea lice) that can infect wild fish populations, and escapes of farmed fish that compete with, and even contaminate, wild populations.

It's become patently clear that Joe Oliver is the consummate salesman, a slick huckster who would happily sell anything to anyone, as long as the transaction lined his pockets, enhanced his political power, or paved the way for corporations to ignore their social and environmental responsibilities by externalizing the environmental costs of doing business, however harmful it will ultimately be.

The move to finance

Former finance minister Jim Flaherty faced severe criticism for several changes to Canadian legislation introduced through budget bills, most notoriously the 425-page omnibus budget bill C-38 which saw sweeping changes to environmental assessment procedures, weakening of environmental laws and devastating funding cuts to science and research stations across the country. In total 74 pieces of legislation were abolished in the bill which was quickly followed with another 443-page omnibus budget bill C-45 that significantly reduced the number of waterways protected in the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

Oliver's new position as finance minister could signal the continued use of parliamentary budget bills for such purposes -- to the benefit of industry and detriment of the environment.


Photo: Flickr/Toban Black

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