Government pushes ahead with Bill C-45, Opposition MPs to consult Canadians

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The House has risen for the Remembrance Day week long break.

MPs will be in their ridings, reconnecting with voters. 

Some may get an earful from voters who don’t appreciate the government's penchant for throwing a pile of disparate pieces of legislation into the shopping cart and checking them out all at once. 

Last spring, some Conservative MPs on break had to fend off vigorous complaints by constituents about the Government's plans to scuttle decades' worth of federal environmental legislation through the device of the first Budget Implementation Bill, C-38.

Prime Minister Harper's strategy when faced with this sort of criticism -- often from Conservative voters -- has been to tough it out. 

His theory seems to be that all of this "parliamentary democracy" stuff is inside baseball.

It is, the Prime Minister seems to believe, of little enduring concern to the average citizen. 

The only thing most Canadians are really concerned about, the Conservatives say, is results. This "process stuff" is just a political insiders' obsession, they argue. We are providing sound stewardship of the economy and that's what Canadians hired us to do.

Threatening lakes and rivers

 This fall, one of the biggest surprises tucked into the second Budget Implementation Bill, C-45, is the scrapping of the long-standing Navigable Waters Protection Act, which is, in the words of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, "Canada's oldest environmental legislation."

The Navigable Waters Act meant that a huge proportion of Canadian lakes and rivers had federal protection from dams, diversions or other activities. Though transport  was the focus of the law, it had the perhaps unintended consequence of protecting the environment too.

With the proposed changes in C-45 "the Conservatives are making lakes and rivers vulnerable to private interests," says the NDP's Deputy Leader and Environment Critic, Megan Leslie.

In a tiny concession, the Conservatives allowed that C-45 could be considered by a number of different committees, not merely the Finance Committee.

But it was a hollow victory for the Opposition. The government is only allowing mere hours of study by each Committee and requiring that they all report back by November 21.

On Thursday, in the Fisheries Committee, Nova Scotia NDP member Robert Chisholm expressed his and his party's frustration.

Chisholm thanked the witnesses who come to testify at very short notice -- from the Assembly of First Nations, Environmental Stewardship and the Atlantic Salmon Federation -- but then pointed out that: "This is a flawed process. We are asked as a committee to look at clauses in this Bill in an extremely, short window of time, a mere handful of hours, and we do not even have the authority to propose amendments."

The witnesses also expressed a high level of dissatisfaction. 

If you do not protect 'lesser' species you further endanger salmon

Conservative MP Robert Sopuck tried to butter up the Atlantic Salmon man, Bill Taylor. After all Taylor represents a constituency the Conservatives hold dear, salt-of-the earth Canadians who enjoy getting out in nature and harvesting wildlife for sport.

Sopuck said he appreciated that the Atlantic Salmon Federation does important, tangible work on habitat protection and research. It harnesses the efforts of hundreds of volunteers to make a real difference, in a practical way.

"Better than those groups who just talk about the environment," the Conservative Committee member said.

But Taylor was not moved. 

He was severely critical of the proposed changes to the Fisheries Act tucked into C-45 -- changes that will inhibit efforts to rehabilitate the severely endangered wild Atlantic salmon. 

To cite just one example, the Salmon Federation head said that the endangered salmon will suffer if other species with which they live in a symbiotic relationship are deprived of protection.

He described the case of migrating alewives and herring, two species considered of lesser value than salmon.

Nature has arranged things, Taylor said, so that the young salmon migrate out of rivers and streams just as the millions of herring and alewives migrate in. This in-migration creates a kind of camouflage for the young salmon. Predators, such as seals, are too busy feasting on those "inferior" species to notice the still-vulnerable young salmon, which allows a high proportion of the salmon "smolts" (as they are called) to make it to the open sea alive.  

That's just one small but crucial piece of scientific information that the Government seems blithely uninterested in hearing. 

In fact, Taylor was unequivocal about the nearly total lack of consultation his group has had with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on the proposed changes to the fisheries legislation. 

Not for turning

 When the Government allocates only hours to Committee hearings, it is hard to expect that there will be much chance to shed any light on the complex consequences of the many the proposed legislative changes in C-45. 

In fact, the Committee process for C-45 seems, mostly, to be an exercise in public relations, not policy making.

In the absence of a serious official consultation process with Canadians, the NDP Opposition plans to use the coming break week to hold town halls across the country on Bill C-45.

Some Conservative MPs may be holding similar consultations, formal or informal. 

But both Government and Opposition MPs already know that the governing party leadership is not for turning. 

Past experience has shown that once launched on a course of action there is very little that might have the power to dissuade the Conservative leadership to even modestly shift course. 

Such is the state of our parliamentary democracy in this era of what Harper has called a "stable, Conservative majority government."


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