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Hill Dispatches - Message to environmental advisory body: 'Shut the fuck up!'

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The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy has a new report out today. 

That's just a couple of days day after the government revealed why it is killing the advisory body that the Progressive Conservative Mulroney government created in 1988.

The reason for this killing is simply that the current Conservative government doesn't agree with many of the Roundtable’s  recommendations. That motive came out in an exchange between Liberal Leader Bob Rae and Foreign Minister John Baird in Question Period on Tuesday.

Rae started by enumerating a partial list of the bodies, agencies and programs the Conservatives are scrapping almost by stealth, with scarce opportunity for discussion or debate.

"Under...proposed budget changes," Rae said, "The Inspector General of CSIS will be gone, the Centre for Rights and Democracy will be gone, the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy will be gone, the First Nations Statistical Institute will be gone, the Governance Institute will be gone, the National Aboriginal Health Organization will be gone, the National Council of Welfare will be gone, environmental assessment will be gutted, Parks Canada will be gutted, and old age security will be gutted..."

In his response, Baird started with the stock response about the Government doing what is necessary for the economy, together with a predictable whack at Rae's record as Ontario NDP Premier.

"We could let spending get out of control. We could see Canada become the welfare capital of the world. We could see unemployment skyrocket. That is his record as premier of Ontario," Baird said and then, without skipping a beat, shifted gears to blurt out the truth:

"The member opposite talks about the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy. It has tabled more than 10 reports encouraging a carbon tax. Now we know why the Liberal Party holds that organization so dearly, because it truly wants to bring in a carbon tax on every family in this country. Those of us on this side of the House will not let them do it."

And so the cat was out of the bag. It's not 'the economy, stupid.' It's, as Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth famously advised an audience of NGOs: "Shut the fuck up!"

Warnings that have great consequence for Canadian competitiveness

In today's press release the National Roundtable makes a point of explaining that its newest report is a result of a request by Environment Minister Peter Kent, as though to say: 'You asked for it, so here it is!'

The National Roundtable's newest report deals with the need for Canada to respect worldwide environmental standards and practices.

Today's news release notes that Canadian companies face "increasing foreign government regulations and emerging market demands that require product life cycle disclosure and stronger environmental standards."

"Foreign governments," the Roundtable says, "Are already imposing requirements on the content of goods sold in their jurisdictions - such as standards for renewable fuel content in transportation fuels. Using resources efficiently - from extraction to disposal - is no longer a simple matter of local determination; it is increasingly a matter of global importance."

In other words, sound environmental practices are not only necessary to a healthy planet, they are necessary to Canada's economic competitiveness.

The current government is highly ambivalent about protecting and nurturing the environment, to say the least. But it never ceases to tell Canadians that the economy is its top priority.

Here is where the environment and the economy meet.

Integrating environmental impacts into business decisions

Today's Roundtable report is about adopting "life cycle approaches for sustainable development." It is about finding ways to compel "firms to increase efficiencies in their production processes and internal operations, and consider environmental factors in their decision making."

"Life cycle approaches to sustainable development are increasingly becoming the gold standard for assessing the economic and environmental sustainability of a product or policy," Roundtable President David McLaughlin argues. "They help companies meet new market demands and governments make better long-term policy decisions that integrate the environment and economy together."

The Roundtable has enlisted the support of Canadian business leaders, who make the point that the United States and the European Union are ahead of Canada in the process of integrating environmental concerns into business decisions. 

The business leaders and the Roundtable note that, in the words of the Roundtable’s Vice-Chair Mark Parent: "Market access for our resources and goods will be at risk if we fail to apply life cycle approaches." 

Canadian companies could face "non-tariff trade barriers imposed by foreign countries and restricted market access because of private sector supply-chain requirements."

The detailed report has a long list of recommendations. They include the development of a Canada-specific life-cycle database, product category rules to ensure better international harmonization standards, and the federal government’s applying life cycle approaches to its own operations and decision-making.

This is sound, business-like advice to the Government. But it comes from an agency that will soon cease to exist.

The Roundtable also warns about 'locked-in' pollution

John Baird said the Government killed the Roundtable because it recommended putting a price on carbon – a fairly bunt and brutal admission. A leaked report in the Globe and Mail yesterday gives another clue as to why the Government might like to silence the Roundtable.

The Globe story says that because of delays in implementing greenhouse gas regulations Canada will be burdened by old-fashioned, pollution infrastructure for many decades to come. This infrastructure will be "locked-in," the leaked report says.

The fact that governments have not set out greenhouse gas regulations in a timely fashion has meant that businesses have gone ahead and built pollution-producing facilities and adopted greenhouse gas producing practices. 

These decisions, today, will tie the hands of business and government. It will be very expensive to replace all of this pollution-producing infrastructure in the future. It would make much more economic sense, the National Roundtable asserts, to build sustainable facilities and adopt sustainable practices today.

That is a tough, evidence-based critique from a credible source.

However, very soon that credible voice will be silenced.  There will be no more of its science-based, disinterested advice, which has earned the respect of both environmentalists and businesses.

Shutting up a respected Conservative source of advice

It is worth noting that the current Roundtable President is no woolly green radical.

In fact, David McLaughlin is a card-carrying member of what used to be the Conservative establishment in Canada.

He worked for a Conservative government in New Brunswick, was Chief of Staff to Brian Mulroney and Executive Director of the Council of the Federation and, at the beginning of the current government’s mandate, served as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's Chief of Staff.

McLaughlin typifies a dying breed of official that has provided policy leadership in Canada for decades. These are professionals who have managed to find a sweet spot in the zone between partisan politics and public service. They have party affiliations and loyalty, but they are also ready to respect what sound evidence tells them.

When the government finds the advice of even the likes of good Conservative David McLaughlin anathema, it may really be time to worry.

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