Mr. Speaker, in essence, what we have before us in the amendment to which the hon. member for Outremont spoke, and I seconded, is a matter of both substance and process.
It is a matter of process in that the members of this House either support a Bush-type way of making law in Canada similar to the way that it was formerly done in the United States where they would secrete amendments to significant laws in things like a budget bill or they believe in openness and transparency. Either the members of this House believe in supporting the kinds of open transparent processes of developing environmental law in Canada that have gone on, or they do not.
There has been in place in Canada, since the enactment of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, a process called the regulatory advisory committee. It is a process where representatives of industry, provincial governments, the federal government and the public come forward to talk about whether changes needed to be made to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and its associated acts, like the Navigable Waters Protection Act, CEPA, the Fisheries Act, or whether they believe that we should simply sneak it into a bill where there is no opportunity for transparency and participation. Either this Parliament believes in the laws that we pass and are in effect or we do not.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act very clearly prescribes that there will be review of the act within five years to be delivered by a committee of the Senate or a committee of Parliament. Do we believe in what that law says, or do we not?
The government across the way is following a completely different procedure outside the scope of what the law provides. A review of our Environmental Assessment Act is going on somewhere today, and we do not know where. It certainly has not been referred to the parliamentary committee on the environment where it is supposed to be referred.
What about the substance of the budget? What the budget is doing is taking various actions that it would like to do to amend significant law and policy in Canada, and just slip it through in a budget bill.
So, either the members of this House believe that substantive matters should come before this House and be openly debated and, in turn, turned over to the parliamentary committees and provide the opportunity for all affected parties, whether they are industry, whether they are municipalities, whether they are provincial officials or federal officials, to come forward and discuss proposed amendments to those laws, make decisions and recommendations which would then come before this House where a decision would be made, or they do not.
In this case, if the members do not support the amendment put forward by the hon. member for Outremont, then either they believe that we should not follow the democratic traditions that are supposed to rule this House where significant amendments to laws come before this House, or they do not.
What is the Navigable Waters Protection Act? It is not a historic law, but it is a very significant law. It is not just whether we paddle a canoe down a river. The Navigable Waters Protection Act was the subject law in one of the most precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada decisions on the environment in Canada; that is, the Friends of the Oldman River Society case. What had happened was a dam was being built in southern Alberta and the federal government had not come forward and done its proper environmental assessment before that dam was approved and so, affected farmers and affected citizens had to go to the court, yet again, to force the federal government to enforce its laws on the books.
What did the Supreme Court of Canada hold? It is a precedent-setting decision: both the federal and provincial governments have authority over the environment.
So, it is very clear that we as legislators, we as members of Parliament, have an important responsibility here, similar to the provincial legislators. It is critical that we enact strong laws for the protection of the environment. It is also important that we make sure that those laws are being effectively enforced.
What has happened in this process? The government nefariously puts through a very substantive amendment to a critical law that is upheld to be a constitutional federal authority without referring it to the House in the normal way, through the five-year review of CEAA, which would allow for it to be reviewed thoroughly by the parliamentary committee, the public, industry, municipalities, and the provinces. Do we think that is inappropriate? Absolutely. It must be removed from the bill.
However, this is not the first time this matter has been raised by the Conservative Party. There was a precursor to this. It was the NDP that raised this when the fiscal update was raised in the fall. In that fiscal update, the government not only slammed women's rights and the rights of government workers to strike, it also said that it was going to remove red tape so that we could fast-track economic development and not have delays of things like environmental impact assessments.
The other parties in the House did not appear to pick up on that. Well, this was the next step forward, which we suspected was coming, that the government had a long-term plan that it was going to undermine environmental laws in Canada. This is exactly what it has done by slipping this through a budget bill and making it very difficult for the parties to try to move forward on dollars to support Canadians who are out at work and at the same time protect the environment.
What is the purpose of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act? It is not minor. As I mentioned earlier in a question to one of the members, it is absolutely critical that we have a process were we identify well in advance what the impacts might be on people downstream of some kind of barrier in a navigable water. Either we order that they be mitigated or that the person who is doing those damages or that barrier to the navigable water pays for those impacts and not the person who is impacted.
It is very critical. It goes to the heart of who should pay. It is the polluter who should pay. Canada has signed on to that international principle. So we need to uphold the laws that we put into effect to implement that provision.
What do we believe in? Do we believe in piecemeal amendments to our environmental laws, or do we believe in the holistic approach, working co-operatively with the provinces?
More than a decade ago, the federal and provincial governments agreed on the harmonization accord. The whole purpose was to come together with the public and industry to talk about ways that we could move forward in a coordinated approach to keep down the costs and keep it effective.
Nobody is hurt more than an affected community by having separate environmental reviews. The public has to spend its own resources to hire lawyers and experts to deal with those potential impacts. There are agreements between the federal government and the provinces which are working very well.
Why, one might ask, is it necessary for the government to come forward in this nefarious way to remove one of the key triggers for federal environmental assessments? There are three, one is federal spending. Clearly, we are talking about federal spending here. The other is the federal law list. Clearly, the Navigable Waters Protection Act is on that law list after discussions with the provinces and industry and the public, and any federal licences or approvals.
What are we doing? We are going to say, well, projects under a certain value do not have to be assessed anymore. The last I looked at that legislation, it is all about taking a look, as the hon. member for Outremont very clearly pointed out. It is all about assessing how significant the impacts are going to be of that development, not about the cost of the development itself. It is completely the wrong trigger point for deciding whether or not there should be an environmental impact assessment.
I would also point out to the House that just because the act is triggered does not mean that there is an extensive, long, drawn-out public hearing. In fact, in very few cases does the federal government even call for a federal hearing. In most cases, there is simply what is called an initial assessment. There is a review by the appropriate agencies to see, should this act be triggered and should we require the proponent to do more work.
What are we doing? Through this backhanded amendment, we are simply saying there is no need to look at all, apart from the fact we may be violating a constitutional obligation to at least consult in advance and accommodate impacts on first nations.
This amendment, which the government says is just very minor, just to fast-track development, is in fact extremely nefarious and undermines the basis of what we are supposed to be doing in Canada, which is saying that the environment and economy are inextricably linked.
The government is saying it is in sync with the Obama administration. Nothing could be further from the truth by trying to fast-track through this kind of an amendment in a nefarious way. Contrary to what the Conservatives have asserted, that they will have an open and transparent government, through a budget bill, they are nefariously trying to make a significant amendment to a critical environmental law.
For this reason I speak strongly against this provision in the budget, and support the amendment put forward by the hon. member for Outremont.