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New and improved Ford government continues its war on the environment

December 5, 2019

Versions published in The Conversation December 10, 2019; The Hamilton Spectator, December 26, 2019; The Toronto Star, December 28, 2019; The St.Catherines Standard, January 8, 2020.

A defining feature of Ontario politics in the aftermath of the October 21st federal election has been the emergence of an apparently new, improved and moderated version of Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government.

The bombastic, aggressive tone of the government’s first year in office has, for now, been replaced by one of moderation and reconciliation. Mr.Ford’s new approach has been on display over the past few weeks in his amicable meeting with newly re-elected Primer Minister Trudeau, promising, among other things, to be ”working hand in hand with the Prime Minister” to get a new NAFTA deal ratified. The same style was evident in Mr.Ford’s approach to last week’s Premier’s meeting, emphasizing the need for unity and to heal regional divisions.

More broadly, the government’s behaviour over the past few months has been defined by a series of ‘walk-backs’ from the dramatic announcements of its first year on everything from funding for childrens’ aid, public health, and autism services, to the decision to proceed with a previously cancelled French language university initiative.

If nothing else it seems Mr. Ford got the message from Ontario voters, delivered most recently through their rejection of the federal Conservatives in October’s election, that they were not happy with the direction that his government had taken during its first year in office.

That said, there has been one very notable exception to the Ford government’s willingness to change direction. On environmental and energy issues the government remains on the same pathway of disruption and destruction that defined its first piece of legislation, dismantling the previous government’s climate change strategy.

That point was highlighted again last week in the provincial auditor’s report. If Mr.Ford was hoping that by eliminating the office of the province’s environmental commissioner last year he would get rid of a potential critic of his government’s environmental performance, he must have been sadly disappointed.

The auditor’s report, whose office is now covering the responsibilities of the former Environmental Commissioner, made it clear that there are major gaps in the government’s Made in Ontario Environmental Strategy tabled last year. In addition to highlighting the gaping holes in the government’s strategy around climate change, the report highlighted a host of other environmental challenges facing the province, including ongoing urban sprawl, air pollution, toxic chemicals, water quality, and biodiversity protection. The province seems to have no idea of how to move forward on any of these issues.

The government’s record on the environment and climate change during its first year in office are well known: the cancellation of the previous Liberal government’s climate change strategy, and legal challenges to federal carbon pricing backstop that replaced it; the Repeal of Green Energy Act, and cancellation of 738 renewable energy contracts at the cost of at least $231 million; termination of province’s energy conservation framework for electricity; re-writing of planning rules at provincial and local levels in favour of developers; weakening protections for endangered species; attempting to open parts of the GTA greenbelt to developers; and the repeal of the province’s toxics use reduction legislation.

Its new tone notwithstanding, the government’s assault on the environment seems to be continuing. Its most recent iteration is Bill 132, another massive omnibus ‘red tape’ reduction bill. Buried in its details is an attempt to undo the previous government's moratorium on neonicotinoid pesticides, widely identified as posing serious risks to pollinators. Other provisions of the Act weaken the rules around forestry operations, gravel pits and quarries, and pollution.

The government is moving forward with a parallel proposal that would dismantle province’s regulatory framework for controlling industrial water pollution, first established in the early 1990s as the Municipal-Industrial Strategy for Abatement (MISA) program. The province is proposing to move away from the MISA program’s province-wide pollution limits for each major industrial sector, and go back to the pre-MISA approach of negotiating pollution limits on a facility by facility basis. The underlying goal seems to be to make it easier to authorize increased discharges of both conventional and toxic water pollutants.

The MISA rules are now 25 years old, and there have been calls from the former Environmental Commissioner’s office and others for their overhaul and updating. Instead, the Ford government is effectively proposing to turn the clock back on how the province managed industrial water pollution to more than half a century ago. The ongoing tragedy of mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows from a pulp mill that operated at Dryden, Ontario in the 1960s and 70s speaks to the effectiveness of that kind of regime.

More broadly, the Ford government’s behaviour suggests that it is unable to grasp either the material or political significance of environmental issues. That point was driven home again last week when both the government’s Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, and its appointee as chair of the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), former Harper era federal natural resources and finance minister Joe Oliver, seemed to offer doubts about the reality and significance of the impacts of climate change. Those positions seemed to put the government at odds with an the overwhelming scientific consensus around the causes of climate change and the seriousness of its implications for Canada and the rest of the planet. It also turns its back to the lived experiences of residents of the Muskoka and Ottawa River valleys through this spring’s floods.

So far, the Ford governments seem to have completely missed point that federal Conservatives inability to articulate an effective strategy to deal with climate change was one of the reasons for their failure to make any progress in the province in October’s federal election.

Where government goes from here an open question. The Provincial Auditor has handed the government a clear and concise statement of the state of the province’s environment, the major challenges it faces, and the implications of those challenges for the health and well-being of Ontario residents.

There is an old saying that if you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, the first thing you do is to stop digging. For the Ford government on the environment, good places to stop digging would be to end its quixotic crusade against carbon pricing, abandon the retrograde measures in Bill 132, and halting its efforts to dismantle the MISA program. From there the government needs to move forward on the very real environmental problems facing the province.

Those problems are not going to go away. How the Ford government handles them is likely to be a key test of its new image of moderation and competency as the province heads towards its own election in 2022.