Until this year, the purpose of the annual Canadian federal budget was to project government revenues, lay out spending priorities and forecast economic conditions for the upcoming year. Reading Budget 2012, announced last week by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, it soon becomes clear that this government has no intention of being encumbered by pedestrian fiscal objectives. The Harper government has instead opted to present what is first and foremost a policy document – one that brazenly asserts the government’s ideological agenda for the coming three years.
If the overriding economic policy goal of this government was not apparent previously, with the release of Budget 2012, there can no longer be any doubt. The Harper gang has dispensed with even the pretense of meeting its basic environmental fiduciary responsibilities in favour of the almost totally unimpeded exploitation of Canadian resources. As Green Party leader Elizabeth May told me this week, the government is effectively telling the Canadian people that they plan “to eviscerate existing laws. This isn’t really a fiscal statement. They’ve used the budget as an instrument of massive overhaul of environmental law and policy and the overriding directive is oil and gas at all costs – the environment be damned.”
Should you happen to belong to the unlucky (and clearly misguided) lot with the audacity to be concerned about the proposed Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines, this is not a budget for you. In fact, perhaps the best we can say about Budget 2012 is, as Rafe Mair put it, at least “we now have it in writing what the bastards are up to!”
Just how bad is it? Well, don’t take my word for it. Last week on CBC, the respected columnist Chantale Hebert of the Toronto Star, hardly an eco-zealot, said this was the most anti-environment budget she had seen in her 20 years covering Parliament Hill. Even the very moderate, if not conservative, editorial board of the Globe and Mail singled out the environmental provisions in the Budget saying “The Conservatives are continuing their dishonourable attack meant to intimidate environmental groups, in a budget item that stands out for adding a needless new cost.”
Steven Guilbeault of the NGO Équiterre said that the budget “seems to have been written for, and even by, big oil interests…the Harper government is gutting the environmental protections that Canadians have depended on for decades to safeguard our families and nature from pollution, toxic contamination and other environmental problems.” And true to form, reaction from oil and gas companies, mining and pipeline companies has been predictably jubilant.
So just what does the Harper government plan to do? First, in what appears to be a return to the glory days of McCarthyism, the Harper gang plans to launch an $8 million campaign at Revenue Canada to investigate and crack down on environmental groups that the government deems are engaged in activities that are too political, including the extent to which these groups are funded by foreign sources.
There is no new funding for climate change programs. In fact the words climate change are mentioned only twice in passing in the entire 498 page budget plan.
The Conservatives will eliminate the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, which was a panel of business and environmental leaders who made policy recommendations on a variety of sustainability issues. A widely respected, non-partisan agency, the Roundtable was founded by the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney in 1988. Its reports of late, however, had annoyed the government as they were mildly critical of their plans to achieve its stated objective of reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. The result? The Harper government has killed them.
Environment Canada’s budget is being cut again, this time by 6%, along with grants for scientific research in universities.The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (or CEAA) is in line for a 40 per cent cut. Touting a ‘one project, one review’ principle, CEAA will be overhauled with federal responsibilities being downloaded on provinces; newly imposed timelines, and a limiting of the scope of reviews. Joint panel environmental reviews are to be limited to 24 months, National Energy Board hearings to 18 months and standard environmental assessments to one year. All this will be imposed retroactively, thereby impacting reviews, such as Northern Gateway, that are currently underway. The changes could jeopardize the capacity of people to participate in reviews and it further undermines the ultimate goal of reviews in ensuring environmental protection is a priority in all projects.
The budget does not renew funding for the popular EcoENERGY energy efficiency program. Minimal tax support will be given to ‘clean energy’ and energy efficiency, but only to the tune of $2 million - a tiny drop in the bucket in a multi-billion dollar budget.
Finally, some changes are planned for subsidies to the oil and gas industry on Canada’s East coast but tar sands subsidies remain untouched. Currently, $1.38 billion a year is allocated to energy development through subsidies.
Although not specifically mentioned in the Budget plan, the government is also widely suspected to be planning to gut key conservation provisions of Canada’s Fisheries Act, the nation's most significant and oldest piece of environmental legislation. The Aboriginal People’s Television Network has also learned that that the Harper Conservatives are changing Canada’s mining regulations so that prospecting companies could soon have free-reign on reserve lands.
So what to make of all this? If the stakes weren’t so high, we may otherwise see this Budget as an unfortunate aberration, a government that clearly has an axe to grind or some kind of vendetta against environmental groups. Yet it’s important to appreciate the significance of what the Harper gang is trying to accomplish: namely, to clear the way for resource development projects that will not easily be undone. The environmental legacy of this government will be felt for a long time to come if they are permitted to implement their agenda unimpeded.
A prestigious conference was held last week, at which some of the world’s leading scientists and academics called for the official designation of a new earth epoch: the Anthropocene. Addressing the ‘Planet under Pressure’ gathering in London, England, scientists said that one species has left an indelible mark through climate change, dwindling fish stocks, continued deforestation, rapid species decline, and human population growth. Anthony Giddens, the British political scientist known for his holistic view of societies, described the Anthopocene as a “runaway world” in which we have unleashed processes more powerful than our attempts to control them.
It is against this dismal backdrop that our federal politicians have unleashed the anti-environmental provisions of Budget 2012 upon the Canadian people. I've recently been seeing a bumper sticker that captures quite nicely the priorities of our current federal government: “At least the war on the environment is going well.”
Mark Brooks is a journalist, broadcaster and environmental educator based in Ottawa. He hosts an environment show on CKCU radio and has written for numerous publications including the Globe and Mail, Alternatives Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, Carbon Markets North America, among others. He also worked for years as a policy analyst for the Government of Canada in the departments of Finance, Transport, Health, Industry and the Privy Council Office. He posts interviews and commentary on environmental and economics issues at www.earthgauge.ca. This column originally appeared in the Common Sense Canadian. Reprinted with permission.