Mr. Speaker, here we are back in the House after an exceptional summer during which many things happened.
First of all, in Quebec, under the Parti Quebecois government-in partnership with our party, the Bloc Quebecois, and the ADQ, the Action démocratique du Québec, with the support of many partners from all sectors of society, and in accordance with the strong wishes of a majority of Quebecers-all of us in Quebec are moving toward the referendum, which, I am increasingly convinced, will give us a country, Quebec, in a few weeks. This is what happened in Quebec over the summer. Winds of change have been blowing and are getting stronger every day.
The Prime Minister of Canada, who says he is distinct-and I fully concur with him-mentioned that the coming referendum debate would be fun. With the winds of change getting stronger, the fun expected by our distinct federalist Prime Minister will become serious and I am sure that he will not find it so funny on October 30.
Other events have commanded my attention this past summer. As a result of a labour dispute, workers at Ogilvie Mills in Montreal have been on strike for more than a year. This is the only labour dispute in Quebec that is specifically due to the use of scabs, which is allowed by the Canada Labour Code. Yet, the Minister of Labour, our national aunt, a first class switch-hitter and former critic of the federal government, promised several times that she would resolve this intolerable situation. The leader of the No side in Quebec continues to say no to these Quebec workers.
Another major issue that is of particular concern to me is the raising of the Irving Whale. I would first like to draw a parallel between this issue and the bill before us today, in the hope that creating the position of Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development will help us avoid a similar mess. Let us hope that the federal commissioner can get involved in such federal matters in order to alert decision makers and, if necessary, stop or reverse decisions like the one to raise the Irving Whale.
This salvage operation, which was scheduled for the month of August, could be described as a total fiasco. In fact, not only the operation itself but the whole matter is a dismal failure. Everything, from the decision making to the environmental assessment, the awarding of the contract and the job itself, was done in an incompetent and irresponsible fashion. The first one to blame for this fiasco is the Minister of the Environment who, for reasons I would describe as very partisan, took serious decisions without proper thought. The minister's partisanship on this issue is obvious. Just think back to the announcement she made in this House, saying something like: "Twenty five years have passed since the barge sank, and nothing has been done. But I, just 90 days after coming into office, made the right decision".
We now have proof that the minister's decision was in fact a botched job. The barge is still lying on the bottom of the Gulf, more than $12 million was spent-taxpayers' money of course, the procedure selected is increasingly questioned, and a Federal Court
judge even requested that she redo her homework as far as environmental assessments regarding PCBs are concerned.
Her botched and dicey decision could have caused irreparable damage to the environment. This partisan political game she has played is inexcusable.
This threat that hung over the Gulf of St. Lawrence throughout the month of August was a matter of continual concern for those directly involved.
Speaking of those directly involved, the hon. member for Bonaventure-Îles-de-la-Madeleine has been conspicuously reserved over the summer with his dear constituents who, all summer long, were completely shattered by this decision to lift the ship in that manner.
The media actually covered the operations, that they questioned on many occasions. The work was conducted haphazardly and without any degree of certainty. In a nutshell, it smacked of amateurism, and that had many people worried.
I certainly hope that the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, whose position Bill C-83 seeks to establish, will have a say in this kind of decisions, which directly threaten the environment. The commissioner will be in a position to monitor the whole decision making process.
In the case of the Irving Whale , the process followed was seriously flawed, thus preventing an appropriate decision, that is the best possible one. Indeed, the process followed regarding the Irving Whale was flawed in several ways.
At the end of 1992, two studies commissioned by the Coast Guard and by the Department of the Environment recommended pumping the cargo out of the sunken wreck. Marex and CEF both concluded that was the safest technique.
However, the government ignored the recommendations made in studies which it commissioned. Instead, the Minister of the Environment relied on a third study commissioned by an independent organization, the Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund, which recommended lifting the barge without emptying it and moving it to a safe place before pumping the oil out.
It should be noted that this study conducted by London's Murray Fenton firm used the two above-mentioned studies as its main references. How could this third firm go against the findings of the other two if it used their studies as its basic reference? At that stage, the process was very twisted to say the least. All this does not seem very logical.
What we can figure out however, is the logic relating to the costs of the operation. In spite of the reassuring words of the minister, it is clear that the costs of the operation unduly influenced the decision making process. Indeed, the government chose the least expensive solution. Bloc Quebecois members and environmental groups have always said that the government should first pump the oil out of the barge.
Public hearings and consultations were held following the minister's decision, but the whole process was obviously a sham. Surely, the commissioner of the environment will be able to take a close look at such decisions.
Then we found out that PCBs were present in the wreck. The government says "What a surprise-we did not know." Yet page 3 of chapter I of the Marex report submitted to the government in December 1992 states that the capacity of the heaters "was transmitted to the cargo via a heating fluid (Monsanto MGS 295S) and heating coils in each tank". Thus the presence of PCBs was already mentioned in the 1992 documents.
So, in June 1995, another environmental assessment and consultations were carried out, this time not only fabricated but hastily fabricated at that. The outcome: a federal court judge issues a stop order and makes the Minister of the Environment do her homework all over again, this time conforming to her own department's statutes and regulations. That is something else, Mr. Speaker. What a blow to the pride of our Minister of the Environment, who had boasted only a few months earlier that she had settled the whole thing.
So the work was stopped by an injunction, work that had been delayed continuously and had already used up its budget. They say that it would cost between $150 000 and $180 000 a day to go on with the project.
And while all this flagrant bungling was going on, those in charge of the Coast Guard and Environment Canada were telling us "No problem. This is a well-oiled operation." Never were words so well chosen, for the whole danger of this controversial operation lay in its "well-oiled" nature.
We are continuing to follow this issue very closely and are anxious to see what the minister's next steps will be. I have drawn a parallel between this issue and Bill C-83, an act to amend the Auditor General Act, since the purpose of that bill is to create a commissioner of the environment responsible for overseeing situations like that of the Irving Whale .
It gives me pleasure to intervene, because this bill arises from the dissenting opinion expressed by the Bloc Quebecois in the May 1995 report of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development on the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development.
As a result of the committee's work on this subject, the Bloc members proposed three essential criteria in the creation of the position of environmental auditor. They are as follows. First, it is the government's responsibility to establish the policies and the auditor's to examine them. Second, we must avoid creating more
organizations with similar mandates. Third, economic and environmental elements must be intrinsically linked.
These criteria gave rise to our party's proposal that the mandate of the auditor general of the environment be given to the office of the auditor general along with the resources it requires to effectively carry out its role.
That is what we proposed at the time. Our proposal was influenced in large measure by the testimony given by the auditor general, Denis Desautels. In testifying before the committee, Mr. Desautels indicated that his office performed the audit duties that would constitute the prime responsibilities of an auditor general of the environment. In other words, the auditor general indicated that he was already involved in environment issues and that he spent $4.5 million on them annually.
He also felt that his office could take on full responsibility for examining environmental and sustainable development matters with an additional appropriation of $4.5 million-making a total of $9 million. The route proposed by the auditor general struck us as the most sensible, simple and effective one to take. The Bloc Quebecois therefore proposed this route, and with Bill C-83 the government confirmed that we were right.
Most committee members were in favour of increasing structures. The Liberal and Reform members advocated, at one and the same time, a new body to be known as the office of the commissioner for the environment and sustainable development and the retention of the auditor general's duties in this area. Liberals and Reformers recommended an office of the environment and of sustainable development, with a budget of $5 million and staff of 30 professional and 15 support employees.
Also as mentioned in recommendation No. 17 of the report, they wanted to congratulate the auditor general on his initiatives on the environment and urge him to keep up the good work. The committee also recommended amending the Auditor General Act so he would have the appropriate instruments to do his job.
Liberals and Reform Party members on the committee were in favour of a new, specific structure, while maintaining and enhancing another structure with the same responsibilities. This would have been inconsistent, inefficient and very costly. Fortunately, the Bloc made its own proposals, and the Liberal minister listened to us, instead of acting on the recommendations of her own members which would have created duplication and overlap within the federal government.
I am glad that the Bloc and the auditor general opted for a common sense approach in this matter.
I think the Liberals and Reform Party members on the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development do not have a clue what common sense means and what the environmental facts are, and I am referring to problems out there that must be dealt with quickly and effectively.
Another instance of this lack of realism on the part of Liberal and Reform members on the committee could be seen in the report on the quinquennial review of the CEPA, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
Liberals and Reform Party members were convinced that it was absolutely necessary to further centralize authority in Ottawa in order to protect the environment. In this report, members opposite and next to us raised several considerations to justify increased centralization of authority in environmental matters. They referred to the growing globalization of environmental problems, the issue of national interest, the increasing importance of international trade and an ecosystem based approach as so many reasons for suggesting that the federal government expand its role and take full responsibility for environmental protection.
With these proposals the committee, in its report on the CEPA-by the way, the Bloc did not agree with the report-ignored the fact that the provinces already had most of the responsibility in this area. The committee, minus the Bloc, takes its cues from the government. They speak the same language, the language of centralization. The federal government wants more power, steadily encroaching on areas that, either directly or indirectly, come under provincial jurisdiction.
This encroachment by the federal government obviously leads to legislative and regulatory duplication which has the effect of setting back and undermining environmental protection. This duplication also causes some reluctance and apprehension among developers who no longer know where they stand. It is not very good for the economy. And this while members opposite keep talking about the economy and creating jobs.
With its increasing propensity for minding the business of the provinces the government is hardly stimulating the economy. In fact, it makes things increasingly difficult for its beloved economy. This is very disturbing. And it is very disturbing for an economy that is supposed to produce all those jobs promised by the Liberals and for the environment, which is in dire need of being protected and renewed.
Is there a way out of this extreme centralist approach? No, not unless we take matters into our own hands as we are about to do in Quebec on October 30. Federalism as such is centralizing, and I would say very much so. This excessive centralization and the manifold duplications it generates means established businesses have to work harder in order to be heard by both levels of government, face double the paper work and are obliged to meet the requirements of two levels of government.
One convincing example of the federal government's duplication involves the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which came in effect last January. Environmental assessment had been, until then, essentially a matter of provincial jurisdiction, had it not? The federal government's unilateral action turned the rules of the game completely around. We in Quebec have been doing environmental assessments for more than 15 years. We have developed an expertise and have established a reputation. With its legislation, the federal government wrecked everything. Worse yet, the federal government did not incorporate any of the amendments proposed by Quebec or any of the other provinces.
The repercussions of this affront to Quebec and the other provinces on the CCME, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, were significant. While the federal minister was inviting her provincial counterparts to discuss harmonization, the events of January 1995 cooled things off considerably.
According to some sources, the climate between the minister and her counterparts remains unsettled. The federal minister would appear to be acting in a somewhat cavalier fashion by showing little concern for the provinces or for the environment. But what do you expect, Mr. Speaker, the minister is much more a political creature than an environmentalist. She is also much more of a federalist at all cost, a vehement centralist, than a decentralist.
Her partisan instincts lead her to unacceptable behaviour that raises a lot of concerns about the environment. She will certainly not effectively manage the environment by treading on the backs of the provinces-quite the contrary. The provinces, and Quebec in particular, have a considerable lead in this area. The minister should respect this and stop meddling in areas of jurisdiction already occupied, and well occupied at that, by the provinces.
If the new Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development looks carefully at the federal government's intrusion into areas of provincial jurisdiction, I am sure that he will focus on how overlap and duplication is detrimental to sound management of the environment.
To get back to this bill, the minister proposes to amend the role of the auditor general by giving him the specific mandate to look into matters related to the environment and sustainable development. As I said earlier and as he himself pointed out during hearings, the auditor general has already opened the door by setting aside $4.5 million a year for this purpose.
The bill provides for the appointment by the auditor general of a senior officer to be called the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, who will perform this specific task.
One of the commissioner's duties will be to submit an annual report to the House of Commons on behalf of the auditor general. This report will deal mainly with two things: first, the extent to which departments have met the objectives and implemented their plans concerning the environment and sustainable development; and second, a record of the petitions received and their status.
What is new in this bill is that it requires the new commissioner to do two things: one, to ensure that category I departments table a sustainable development strategy within two years after this bill comes into force; two, to open a door by allowing citizens wishing to be heard to file petitions calling for action on the environment and sustainable development.
These two initiatives seem worthwhile in principle. In reality, however, one may wonder how much actual impact they will have.
Let us have a closer look at this new opportunity for people to file petitions with the commissioner.
This is a very simple procedure. The petition must be filed within the specified deadline; certified copies must be sent to those directly concerned; finally, the department responsible must provide a response. The procedure will be implemented without problems.
What I question though is the effectiveness of such petitions. Is this bill merely and stupidly putting in place a mechanism by which petitions can be tabled or will it really enable the people to have an say and to effect change?
In light of what is achieved through the petitions we table in this House, allow me to doubt their ability to effect any changes. The government's will to respond by taking swift action is seriously lacking. Petitions are given only trivial answers, based on facts, statistics or results and in no way sway the government or compel it to do anything. Petitions are not taken seriously by the government.
What will become of petitions to the commissioner of the environment? They will have the same fate as the rest of the petitions tabled in this place, since they will be answered by the same departments. There is no doubt that the government should be forced to pay greater attention to this means of applying pressure that the taxpayers have. Greater merit should be recognized to petitions.
I can remember the petition I tabled in this House regarding the Irving Whale . On September 23, 1994, petitioners from the Magdalen Islands asked that leaks be stopped and that further public, and particularly more transparent, hearings be held on this issue. To no avail. The barge continued to leak and is still leaking as we speak, but no further hearings were held.
The Minister of Transport's answer was flat and did not take into account the concerns expressed by the people. Petitions are useless since governments pay little attention to such demands.
This is highly regrettable and it aggrieves the people. On the other hand, while not signing any petitions, lobbies are paid much more attention to by ministers. The Liberals opposite are particularly lax in that area. Recent decisions clearly show that lobbyist and minister go hand in hand, while petitions amount to nothing.
This concludes my remarks on the petition aspect of the bill. Let us now turn to the other key element, namely the development and tabling of sustainable development strategies by the departments.
I immediately wonder about the two year time limit for tabling these strategies. What will the commissioner do during those two years, since his job is to make inquiries and monitor the implementation of departmental action plans and report annually on the extent to which objectives were met? What is the commissioner going to do for two years? This measure means that, to all intents of purposes, he or she will have nothing to audit for three years, assuming that the initial report will be on the first year the strategies are implemented.
Let us now examine these sustainable development strategies. First of all, it needs to be pointed out that they replace the green plan, that famous green plan which held such promise, but has passed on after years of neglect by the government.
We in the Bloc see this new federal government approach as another serious threat of encroachment and intrusion into provincial areas of jurisdiction. This concept of sustainable development which the federal departments are to develop concretely into plans raises some legitimate concerns. Does not sustainable development concern resources, an area of provincial jurisdiction?
Recent federal government actions, including the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, as well as the Liberals' ultracentralist intent in the report on the CEPA, are clear evidence to us of this tendency to interfere.
The federal government, under the guise of ecologizing the operations of each department, is actually implementing an overall result-oriented sustainable development strategy. On first view, one might believe this to be an initiative with exclusively federal effects, but when the description and orientations of this initiative are examined, it can be seen that it will be able to influence all of the provincial governments directly.
This initiative goes much further. By introducing sustainable development, each department has an opportunity to take responsibility for certain areas under federal jurisdiction. To achieve the desired results, the federal government has identified certain objectives for sustainable development which it intends to promote. For instance, it wants to ensure that the development of renewable and non-renewable resources, many of which, I may remind you, are exclusively under provincial jurisdiction, is sustainable.
Even if the provinces play a major role in achieving these objectives, the federal government has clearly indicated that it will emphasize communications and consultations with individuals and the private sector. It has only hinted at the possibility of joint management agreements with the provinces and aboriginal communities.
This approach, including implementation of the concept of sustainable development and an emphasis on relations with individuals and the private sector, may be seen as a threat to the provinces. A very subtle threat, which nevertheless reveals the cavalier approach of a federal government that uses this diversion to satisfy its hunger for centralism. In fact, the federal government increasingly resorts to this kind of strategy to get around the provinces and encroach on a number of areas.
As far as the environment is concerned, this approach is both unfortunate and dangerous. The federal government's record is not outstanding in this respect, and centralism does not tend to produce quick results where they are needed. We must not forget that the environment is out there, not in the offices of Ottawa's bureaucrats.
We think that before making any claims that they can do a better job, federal departments should start by complying with provincial legislation. The environment is one area where the provinces played a very active role well before the federal government did so. In fact, the Constitution confers on them a role that is more important than that of the federal government which, over the years, has used and abused its spending power in provincial jurisdictions. Ever since the federal government broke this delicate balance in the middle of the eighties, the result has been overlapping jurisdictions, conflicting objectives and costly duplication.
Fortunately, in Quebec, on October 30, Quebecers will decide to make their own country. Our environment will no longer be at the mercy of the federal government and will be able to breath easier.