A slippery slope: Budget bills and the erosion of environmental rights
By Julee Boan
The tabling of the Ontario Minister of Finance’s budget this spring confirms an emerging trend where political expediency is valued over democratic principles. Federal and provincial governments are increasingly using “omnibus” legislation (proposed laws before legislatures which combine multiple, often substantive issues, into one bill) to pass changes to laws with little public oversight.
This “all or nothing” tactic has been linked to passing budgets where the political stakes are high and dissension can result in taxpayers footing the bill for yet another expensive election.
Ontario’s omnibus bill is hundreds of pages long and it practically takes a law degree to decipher — clearly not intended for the layperson to sift through. Buried deeply in the legal-speak are proposed changes to nearly 70 pieces of legislation including many natural resource laws affecting Northern Ontario. The province has put forward amendments to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, the Public Lands Act, the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, the Lakes and Rivers Improvement Act, the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Ontario Forest Tenure Modernization Act, among others.
A recent review of these changes by the Canadian Environmental Law Association and Ecojustice emphasized two overriding concerns: 1) the lack of public participation, and; 2) the increase in regulatory discretion. Because these amendments are in a budget bill, the government has quite deftly sidestepped the normal procedure of posting changes to environmental legislation on the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) to solicit public input. The EBR legally recognizes that everyone has a shared right to a healthy environment and to participate in environmental decision-making.
We might not exercise this right often, but the fact is that each of us can comment on any changes to the rules impacting our shared natural environment. In addition, increased regulatory discretion, including an increased ability to grant exemptions, delegate authority and even remove Crown liability, will mean less transparency, certainty and predictability.
Some of these amendments are putting forward very significant changes. One of the most important decisions, how much authority should be delegated to a minister, in this case the minister of a minority government, will be decided without public consultation.
For example, the proposed changes to the Crown Forest Sustainability Act (CFSA) will provide the Minister of Natural Resources with the power to dispense with the current requirement to prepare a forest management plan for the harvesting of public timber and also provide the minister with the power to forego requirements to log only within established sustainable harvest limits. The CSFA, the result of seven years of exhaustive public review of forest operations, is now being changed without our input.
Combined with more cutbacks to the Ministry of Natural Resources, these changes will pave the way for more self-policing with fewer field staff to monitor compliance and impacts on air, water, fish and wildlife. The time for public input is now, not down the road after we are already sliding down a slippery slope.
Using a budget bill to implement changes to environmental legislation obscures transparency and undermines public participation. Whether circumventing public process saves money is debatable. In the long run, we can expect more conflicts over land use, more environmental degradation, and higher costs to taxpayers to eventually fix the problems. But these days short-term thinking and politics seem to go together like budgets and omnibus bills.
The province still has time to do the right thing — remove the proposed changes to environmental law from the budget and table them as separate bills, subject to public oversight and consultation through the EBR process.
For more information, visit www.environmentnorth.ca. You can also send an email to Premier Dalton McGuinty [firstname.lastname@example.org], Michael Gravelle, Minister of Natural Resources [email@example.com] and Dwight Duncan, Minister of Finance [firstname.lastname@example.org].
(Julee Boan is a board member of Environment North in Thunder Bay.)