Why Jim Carr will be the loneliest cabinet minister

Source: The Globe and Mail

Written by: Jeffrey Simpson – National affairs columnist

The minister of the environment used to be the loneliest person in the federal cabinet. He or she held a portfolio that had no natural allies and many natural enemies among the departments in Liberal, Progressive Conservative and Conservative cabinets.

Today, in the Justin Trudeau cabinet, the Environment Minister is surrounded by allies, and is charged by the Prime Minister with co-operating with them, whereas the Natural Resources Minister is the loneliest minister. The change from the past could not be more complete.

In the past, Environment was considered by definition to be a big-spending department. It was therefore checked, and sometimes checkmated, by spending watchdogs in the Finance Department and Treasury Board.

Natural Resources, whose mandate was to promote natural resources industries, provided a natural, structural foe of the Environment Department. So, too, were the Agriculture and Fisheries departments, whose client groups (farmers and fishermen) groaned at what they saw as excessive environmental regulations. Transport Canada occasionally cocked a skeptical eye at Environment’s intrusions into transportation decisions.

How the tables have turned. Consider, for example, the mandate letter Mr. Trudeau sent to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr.

In the past, the natural resources minister’s job was to promote the development and shipping of Canada’s natural resources. A huge number of jobs and indeed whole communities depended on those industries. Governments needed the revenues these industries produced. The country’s trade balance was influenced by the export of these products.

In the mandate letter for the Natural Resources Minister, however, there are 11 references to “clean technologies,” “renewable energy,” “pressing environmental challenges,” “reduce environmental impacts” and the like. The only reference to actually developing resources is the phrase that the minister’s “overarching goal will be to ensure that our resource sector remains a source of jobs, prosperity and opportunity.” But even this injunction is qualified with development being “in a world that increasingly values sustainable practices and low carbon processes.”

The Natural Resources mandate letter rather reads as if it were intended for the Environment Minister. In this government, natural resources development is an orphan and the environment has many fathers.

Many other mandate letters are replete with the kind of environmental message contained in the one sent to Natural Resources; none is replete with references to the jobs and money resource development brings, and has always brought, to the Canadian economy. If the Conservatives stood accused of tilting one way in excessively promoting resource development, the Liberal government is certainly tilting the other.

The Natural Resources Minister, therefore, has no natural allies in this cabinet in trying to promote development, but Mr. Carr will have plenty of foes. Unless, of course, he and the government can change the regulatory framework, simultaneously placing additional time and money costs on companies while getting faster and better end results.

The belief in this improbability runs deep in contemporary Liberal thinking: that if regulatory processes are made more “robust” (a fashionable new word in policy talk) by taking even more account of environmental issues and aboriginal points of view, these processes will become more legitimate, will somehow achieve more of that opaque thing called “social licence,” will render more sensitive decisions and ultimately will increase approval rates for projects.

So the Natural Resources Minister is instructed to “restore robust oversight and thorough environmental assessments … while working with provinces and territories to avoid duplication.” (Nice work if you can get it.)

Canadians, especially aboriginal groups, must be allowed a greater role in “reviewing and monitoring major resources development projects.” And proponents will be required to “choose the best technologies available to reduce environmental impacts.”

The theory here is that those environmentalists and aboriginal groups that systematically oppose resource development of almost any kind are really upset about the process, so if the process were lengthened and strengthened, they would drop their opposition and projects could proceed.

But in many cases, complaints about process, some of which might be justified, are really complaints about the outcome that the opponents are preordained to oppose, regardless of process. The Liberals will find this out soon enough, once their theory has been put to the test.

In the meantime, the lonely Mr. Carr, who is a decent man from Winnipeg with long experience in politics and business, will find it increasingly hard to get anything done, at least with anything approximating speed.