February 13, 2006

Little-known Environment Minister faces pressing challenges

By: ~Colin Isaacs

The last time a Conservative Prime Minister setting up a new government picked an environment minister from the ranks of the unknown it was a disaster both for the government and the environment.

Suzanne Blais-Grenier gave away a great deal of federal environment responsibility to the provinces, dismantled much of the Environment Canada bureaucracy, and sent the morale of most of those who were left to new lows.

Within a year she was fired from Cabinet and in three more years she was kicked out of the Conservative caucus for reasons that are best forgotten (she had made allegations of kickbacks involving the Quebec wing of the Progressive Conservative Party).

Rona Ambrose may not be another Blais-Grenier but it is not yet clear that she will be another John Fraser, Joe Clark's immensely popular environment minister. She does have some government policy experience, gained through work in the Alberta government's International and Intergovernmental Relations department, and she is a social activist who sees a role for government in society.

She is an intense political partisan and an aggressive parliamentary debater, especially on Conservative child care policy where [environmental lobbyists take note] she told Liberal Social Development Minister Ken Dryden that "we don't need old white guys telling us what to do."

Ambrose claims to have once worked at an Edmonton-based web design and communications consulting firm with a profile so low that its manager, Brian Mulawka, admits that "we don't have an extravagant office, or a huge advertising budget, or a catchy gimmick that helps people remember us."

Maybe that's why so few people in the environment community have ever heard of Rona Ambrose.

Environment continues to be a revolving door. In the 35 years that Canada has had a federal department of the environment there have been 22 environment ministers and only ten prime ministers. Ambrose's chances of staying at environment for the long haul are not good. Nevertheless, two or three issues are inescapable.

The Kyoto Protocol is likely to be one of her Achilles heels. The Conservatives do not like Kyoto but will not be able to pull Canada out of the international agreement during the minority government term. The opposition will likely keep the heat on with respect to climate change, given that it is a winner in the court of public opinion.

The government will try to stall most federal climate change activity and funding, no doubt claiming for as long as possible that it is under review. Funding announced by the Liberals but not voted on will be scrapped.

Only two actions with any profile are likely: Canada will join the US-led Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, and the government will mandate a 5% average renewable content in Canadian gasoline and diesel fuel by 2010.

The other challenge for Ambrose is the Conservative election promise of a Clean Air Act. Canada does not need a Clean Air Act, there has been no pressure from any major sector for such legislation, and it is not at all clear what it might seek to achieve. Voters, however, are likely to insist that this promise be kept.

Two scenarios exist: the new Act may require that industry increase reporting of air emissions, something that, for different reasons, will elicit howls of protest from industry and from environmentalists. Or it may require that provinces put in place specified air quality standards, an approach that is likely to attract howls of protest from the provinces and which flies in the face of the downloading of environmental responsibility initiated by Blais-Grenier, Brian Mulroney's first environment minister.

At Environment Canada, it seems most things that go around, come around.

Colin Isaacs, head of the CIAL Group and publisher of the Gallon Environmental Letter, reviews environment-related trends in policy (government and corporate) and legislation for ELW. Comments may be E-mailed to cisaacs@compuserve.com.

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