August 23, 2004

Commentary: Minority government unlikely to offer major legislative, spending initiatives on environment

History suggests that the apparent enthusiasm of many Canadians for minority government may lead to further disenchantment with government. Minority governments are typically short-lived, engage only in short-term planning, and provide a constant source of political brinksmanship. There are few signs to suggest that Canada's new federal government will be any different.

It is important to recognize that Canada's new government is not a coalition government. The cabinet is made up only of Liberal Members of Parliament and the controls on cabinet and ministerial actions are no different from those that existed previously. As long as the House approves the Finance Minister's budget, departments have exactly the same opportunity to proceed with spending programs as they have had in previous governments.

In this minority government, the three parties not in government will have direct input only on legislation which comes before the House of Commons. With no new environmental legislation in the pipeline, increased opposition influence on environmental matters is likely to be limited to budget discussions. Of course there will also be the regular opportunity to influence the direction of government through question period and through private members' bills but neither provides an especially effective mechanism for addressing complex environmental issues.

As survival of the government depends on winning money votes, there will almost certainly be backroom discussions between the Liberal government and the NDP and Bloc QuÈbÈcois (BQ) to give those two parties enough of their agendas to guarantee their ongoing support. In the environment area, this will almost certainly include spending on climate change and alternative energy, and may include economic development linked to growth of the environment industry. Few other environmental priorities are likely to see increased federal spending. Indeed the likelihood is that, except for the Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) initiative, most federal environmental spending will continue to decline or at best be flat-lined.

It is reported that StÈphane Dion was eager for the Environment portfolio. His role is likely to include development of a new national climate change strategy, in partnership with the provinces, and development of a new federal-provincial accord on the environment.

The content of the latter is far from clear. It could include a further downloading of federal environmental responsibilities to the provinces or possibly a system in which the federal and provincial governments reach consensus on national standards with a provision allowing individual provinces to introduce more stringent standards if they wish.

Those of us who would prefer to see greater environmental regulatory responsibility restored to the federal level are likely to be disappointed: the provinces are unlikely to agree. In general, however, industry will be pleased to learn that tougher environmental regulations are not on the national agenda.

Colin Isaacs, head of the CIAL Group and publisher of the Gallon Environment Letter, was a member of the Legislature during a minority government in Ontario. He reviews environment-related trends in policy (government and corporate) for ELW. Comments may be e-mailed to cisaacs@compuserve.com.

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