Some environmentalists and critics are concerned Government House Leader John Baird is also as the new environment minister on a temporary basis following Jim Prentice's resignation from Cabinet and say it shows the governing Conservatives do not take the environment portfolio seriously.
"If [Jim Prentice has] known for months, and he's been negotiating his departure and his contract and his employment terms, and hadn't told the Prime Minister, I'd be extremely surprised. If the Prime Minister hadn't then said, 'We need to fix this problem,' and have a good environment minister hitting the ground running, the day of or the day after Mr. Prentice's resignation, that just sounds to me to be unbelievable. It's not believable," said Liberal House Leader David McGuinty (Ottawa South, Ont.). "What's probably more believable is that it's been given to Mr. Baird simply to contain the matter because the Prime Minister clearly doesn't take it seriously."
Mathew Bramley, director of climate change at the Pembina Institute, said that because Mr. Baird (Ottawa West-Nepean, Ont.) will hold two ministerial portfolios, he's concerned about whether the environment will be pushed to the backburner.
"It is grounds for concern that he's going to be having two substantial ministerial responsibilities at the same time. Definitely, I think that's grounds for concern, and I think people will be watching somewhat anxiously to ensure that the environment is receiving his full attention," he said.
Mr. Prentice, who had been the environment minister since October 2008, resigned from Cabinet on Nov. 4 after announcing in the House that he would be joining the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce as its vice-chair and senior executive vice-president.
In a press release issued late Friday evening the day after, Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) appointed Mr. Baird as the new environment minister, while holding onto his government House leader duties. The press release did not mention the fact that the appointment was temporary, but PMO communications director Dimitri Soudas confirmed to The Hill Times last week that Mr. Baird's additional role was an "acting" one.
Mr. McGuinty, who was also previously the Liberal Party's environment critic, criticized the temporary move, saying that the environment portfolio will be ignored.
"It's not as if Mr. Baird has any kind of record you could point to of accomplishment on the environment file. He was probably one of the worst environment ministers in Canadian history. But he was never sent there to do an environment job. He was sent there to contain the file, so he did exactly as he was ordered to do by Mr. Harper. So in Mr. Harper's mind, it was a very successful term as environment minister. From an environmental perspective, it was a colossal, colossal failure," he said. "So will it conflict? Yeah, it will conflict. The environmental file for Canada will continue to suffer badly."
Mr. Bramley said, however, that although Mr. Baird's term as environment minister was not as successful as he had hoped, he's happy that Mr. Baird was appointed the interim minister because he already knows the file.
Mr. Bramley noted that one of Mr. Prentice's failures as environment minister was the lack of a climate change plan to meet the Conservative government's stated targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
When Mr. Baird was environment minister from January 2007 to October 2008, he at least introduced a plan for Canada to meet its emissions reduction targets, Mr. Bramley told The Hill Times.
Mr. Baird introduced the government's "Turning the Corner" plan in 2008, to the delight of industry but to the chagrin of environmental groups, to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2020, as opposed to the 2012 Kyoto Protocol targets.
"Clearly John Baird knows the environment file, and particularly the climate change file as well, from his previous experience as environment minister. So, there's absolutely no reason why he can't hit the ground running. Often when the environment ministers are appointed, and when they don't know the file, you know, it can reasonably take awhile for things to get moving, but there's obviously no excuse for that in this case," Mr. Bramley said, noting that Mr. Baird's first order of business should be create a "credible plan" for climate change and implement it.
"John Baird, when he was minister before, recognized that as a responsible environment minister, he had that responsibility to at least have a plan that purported to meet the targets. One of the reasons why Canada has such low credibility internationally on climate change, and I think such little credibility with Canadians on climate change is that the emperor has no clothes. There's nothing approaching a plan to meet it."
Mr. Bramley said that while "there were many things wrong with 'Turning the Corner,'" it was a small attempt at having a plan. It's something Mr. Baird should do again, he said.
"Frankly, it's ridiculous that we currently have a government proclaiming an emissions target both to Canadians and the international community with no plans to meet it," he said. "It's ludicrous."
Mr. Baird told The Hill Times last week that holding two important portfolios will "no doubt [be] a challenge," but he said he has a lot of support. "I'm very fortunate to have a strong Parliamentary team, [Chief Government Whip] Gordon [O'Connor], [Parliamentary secretary to the Government House leader] Tom [Lukiwski] and [Deputy Government House Leader] Scott Reid, so they'll be of help to me on that side, and [Parliamentary secretary to the Environment minister] Mark Warawa on the other side," he said. "Obviously on the environment, we've got some important things in the system that will have to be dealt with. We don't want to lose any momentum. On the parks side, I'm a huge supporter of land conservation and we'd like to continue to see some progress on that in the next two, three four months. I've already had some pretty good meetings with the deputy from both Environment and Parks."
Mr. Baird said he couldn't explain why the environment post was a temporary one, and could not say when the Prime Minister would appoint a permanent minister, but that he's "pleased" to serve. "That's up to the Prime Minister, that's his prerogative," he said.
Speculation last week had the PM shuffling his cabinet in January after three byelections were held Nov. 29.
Mr. Baird noted that as the former environment minister, and as the chair of the Cabinet Committee on the Environment, he doesn't have a steep learning curve, and therefore, will indeed hit the ground running.
"I'll be working hard on the Copenhagen Accord. I'll be working hard on land conservation. For the last three years, I had transport and infrastructure. They're two separate departments. They report together, but they're two separate departments, and I did a reasonably good job on that. I'll certainly have to work hard, but I'm used to that," he said. "I believe we want to continue the momentum, whether it's on water quality, whether it's on GHGs, whether it's on land conservation. If you look over the last four years, we've expanded the number of protected areas in Canada by 30 per cent in four short years. I played a big part in starting that up, and Jim did a lot, and I think there's some great projects in the pipeline that we're going to work hard to push over the limit."
Mr. Bramley said, however, that with the change in ministers, it's a good opportunity for Canada to change its policy direction from "blindly following" the U.S.'s decisions on climate change.
"Its previous approach to climate change has really failed," Mr. Bramley said. "I'm particularly referring to this discredited idea that Canada has to wait for the decisions made in Washington before acting. That's really become untenable as a result of the U.S. midterm elections. It's become, more clearly than ever, simply a recipe for delay and inaction. That is clearly no longer a tenable position and having a change in minister is a good opportunity for the government to change its course on that."
The U.S. midterm elections were held on Nov. 2. The Democratic Party lost its majority in the House of Representatives, but kept its majority in the U.S. Senate, leaving U.S. President Barack Obama to suggest that he may have difficulty getting his cap and trade bill through Congress. Under Mr. Prentice's term at environment, Canada had put forth the rhetoric that the two countries were too dependent on each other for Canada to go ahead with it own cap and trade system.
Mr. Baird did not indicate whether there would be a policy shift from his government as a result of him taking over the portfolio.
He said, however, that, "Jim was the environment minister for the last two years, and I was the chair of the Cabinet Committee on the environment, so we worked closely together and I've been involved in a lot of the decisions so, I was a pretty keen supporter of the initiatives he took. I think the Copenhagen Accord was some good progress we've just got to continue to focus."
Mr. Baird also disputed that Canada was "blindly following the U.S." when it comes to climate action.
"I think President Obama has made some comments with respect to getting a cap and trade bill through Congress, but he said he's equally keen and committed to move forward using other tools and we look forward to a continuing productive relationship. We've come a long way in the last few years," Mr. Baird said. "For automobiles and now light trucks, we've got common emission reductions standards. We've used existing environmental regulations as have the Americans, so that's constructive. Transport is a huge part of the GHG emissions, so there's some significant progress we've made there, and we've got more to do. We're working on the aviation side, we're working on the maritime side, and the rail, so we're going to continue to get significant reductions through regulation which, I think Jim proved very successful at doing."
Mr. McGuinty said despite Mr. Baird's past experience, it's still surprising that the Prime Minister would not appoint a permanent environment minister.
"If he does not have the bench strength to immediately appoint an environment minister that's a surprise. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he's not also appointing a separate environment minister because in Mr. Baird he has a person who wouldn't be given the assignment to move it forward, but only to contain it," he said. "That I think probably is the purpose of it, unless Mr. Harper behaves differently and actually gives this really, really important file the attention it deserves. It surprised me that he didn't have somebody waiting who had been told that they were going to be taking on this task."
Mr. Bramley said, however, that given Mr. Baird's experience, he hopes he will be able to move the environment agenda forward.
"He went to the Bali climate change conference, where I think it was a major learning experience for him. I think it was an uncomfortable experience for him, but I think he learned a lot about the importance of the issue, and the importance that other countries attached to it and the poor reputation that Canada has acquired internationally," he said. "I can't predict what policy decisions will be taken, and I think another important point on that is clearly environment ministers don't make policy decisions on their own. The decisions are made by cabinet, and unfortunately we've had a cabinet led by a Prime Minister who hasn't wanted to take serious action on climate change. I don't know whether John Baird can do a lot about that."