Instead of taking more than seven months so far to come up with a new core mandate for the Department of Environment and Conservation, maybe the minister (Tom Hedderson, that is) should have spent the time fulfilling the department’s old core mandate — a mandate most of his predecessors seem to have happily ignored.
If Hedderson had realized that any mandate — old or new — would naturally require the department to abide by legislation passed in the House of Assembly, he might not have been left holding the bag for four former ministers. If he had jumped on his responsibilities before being pushed into them, he would not have found himself trying, but failing to explain why no environment minister since Tom Osborne bothered to appoint anyone to the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council (WERAC), as required by law.
When questioned on the matter, Hedderson seemed confused. He claimed that WERAC has only been officially defunct for about a year — not five, as is the case. He also claimed the council seats are only vacant because of the core mandate review he apparently instigated shortly after coming into office, although he didn’t explain why.
He offered no reason why four former ministers in a row (Clyde Jackman, Charlene Johnson, Ross Wiseman and Terry French) had likewise disregarded their obligations under the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Act of 1980. Were they all also conducting mandate reviews that similarly disrupted the normal functioning of the Environment Department?
That could be. It would also explain why most Progressive Conservative environment ministers have been violating at least one other piece of legislation: the Endangered Species Act of 2001.
Under that act, the minister has two simple tasks: first he or she appoints up to nine members to a Species Status Advisory Committee (SSAC) and then, after the committee studies which species are at risk in the province, he or she passes their recommendations to the government and ensures there’s a response within 90 days.
Easy tasks, perhaps, but not easy enough for PC environment ministers. They have been appointing SSAC members but they’ve failed miserably to get the necessary responses from the government. According to SSAC’s 2010-2011 annual report, response was as much as five years overdue on 16 different recommendations concerning various endangered, threatened and vulnerable species, including the rock-dwelling sedge and Lindley’s aster.
Since Osborne oversaw the designation of a few species back in the early 2000s, only one minister has secured any response to any recommendation. Mackenzie’s sweet vetch, the rattlesnakeroot and the northern bog aster were all declared endangered under Johnson — almost four years overdue.
“I’m in a position right now where I am turning my attention to what loose ends are around my department,” Hedderson told a reporter with The Western Star. The minister meant the neglected WERAC appointments, but after having endured so many lacklustre leaders, Environment and Conservation probably has many more loose ends for Hedderson to tackle while he redefines the department’s mandate. WERAC, the overdue SSAC recommendations and the lack of effort to create the promised Eagle River Waterway Park are only three examples of how the department is unravelling.
When interviewed, Hedderson was quite vague about his future mandate, but one hopes it will still be about conserving resources and protecting the environment. Unfortunately, as indicated by both the minister’s and the department’s record, chances are slim environmentalists and conservationists will be happy.
Since Hedderson became environment minister he seems to have done little except declare the Muskrat Falls transmission line to be risk-free and release a climate change report that inaccurately describes the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project as being environmentally friendly, while unloading most of the responsibility for battling climate change onto the backs of ordinary citizens.
With that in mind, perhaps Hedderson’s mandate will be simple to predict: to facilitate industrial development by minimizing environmental oversight. The future might be Hedderson’s new Office of Climate Change, Energy Efficiency and Emission Trading — a new body that is not bound by any of the legislation that guides the official department. Possibly the core mandate will require the abolishment of the department altogether — after all, then Hedderson won’t need to follow any inconvenient laws.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.