Reform Cabinet for Canadians

March 29, 2012 in the Martlet

The week before last, Environment Minister Peter Kent went on record in support of changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, a piece of legislation that falls under the jurisdiction of his office. The proposed changes will gut the effectiveness of the Act to protect fish habitat, begging the question: who does Peter Kent work for?

Peter Kent comes from an illustrious background: he is a member of the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame. He made significant contributions to Canadian journalism and received numerous awards for his work, including four Emmys. Then he became a politician.

One of Kent’s first statements as Environment Minister, on January 6, 2011, was that “it is not our intention to discourage development” of the oilsands. He continues to assert that the project has no effect on the Athabasca River, despite numerous independent and government studies suggesting otherwise, including a “secret” presentation made to his office last year. And just this month, the Honourable Peter Kent threw his support behind the government’s plan to redefine an important piece of legislation, discontinuing federal protection of fish habitat.

This, coming from any other MP — even another minister such as Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — would make sense. Their jobs, after all, are not described as “protecting the environment, [and] conserving the country’s natural heritage” as is Kent’s on his departmental website. Protecting the environment and conserving the country’s natural heritage is Peter Kent’s responsibility as Environment Minister and those are the first words used to describe the work of Environment Canada, one third of his portfolio.

Furthermore, Environment Canada’s mandate is to “preserve and enhance the quality of the natural environment, including water, air, soil, flora and fauna; conserve Canada’s renewable resources; conserve and protect Canada’s water resources,” and more along the same lines, which in relation to Kent’s recent comments would be an entertaining irony if not for its consequences.

It is true that Enbridge and its partners in the Northern Gateway pipeline will benefit greatly from a reduced regulatory burden, but this should not be the concern of the Minister of the Environment.

Of course, we take it for granted that a cabinet minister will bow to pressure from the PMO. After all, he or she is only there by the grace of the prime minister, and can be relieved of his or her duties at the first sign of disobedience.

This is a problem. Canadians should be able to trust that cabinet ministers will do their best to uphold the mandates of their respective ministries; we should not expect them to use their position of honour and influence to bring credence to whatever cause the PMO wishes to promote.

Why not take that a step further, and expect that our Ministers not only act in the best interest of their mandates, but that they are qualified to do so? As a former journalist, Peter Kent is not qualified to make decisions about the environment. Similarly, Defense Minister Peter MacKay never served in the military, nor did he work in any defense-related position, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was an accident and injury lawyer before entering politics. There is certainly money in that, but chasing ambulances is not a financial strategy that works for most Canadians.

These backgrounds will not come as a surprise to those who follow politics; most of us don’t expect our representatives to be anything but politicians acting in our best interests. However, when given a mandate that involves complex issues such as environmental protection, Canadians should be able to expect that this representative is the best person for the job (and not just a nodding head, rewarded by the PM for outstanding head-nodding), and that this person fight for the department to which he or she has been appointed. Our Environment Minister should do his best to protect the environment and not the Prime Minister’s short-sighted, potentially catastrophic push for energy development at any cost.

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