Harper’s law and order government is happy to break some laws as it pushes ahead with austerity measures by Thomas Walkom, February 18, 2014, Toronto Star
The federal government claims its austerity measures are virtually costless. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have cut back spending to a degree rarely seen in this country. Between 2010 and the next election, the government predicts, it will have slashed direct spending by $45 billion. Yet it continues to claim that these cutbacks will have no real effect on the public. Instead, the Conservatives say, the brunt will be borne by those they dismiss as fat-cat, unionized civil servants.
But a recent Federal Court ruling challenges this rosy scenario. Justice Anne Mactavish’s decision, released Friday, deals with a small part of Ottawa’s administrative machinery. Yet it may help to explain how Harper’s Conservatives have been able to keep the lid on federal spending broadly.
In this case, Canada’s law-and-order government simply broke the law.
The Federal Court ruling deals with four relatively obscure animals: the Nechako white sturgeon, the Pacific humpback whale, the marbled murrelet (a seabird) and the southern mountain caribou. All are listed as threatened or endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Under this law, the federal government is required to come up with a remedial plan, within at least four years, for species that are in danger of becoming extinct. Yet as Mactavish found, the government made no such plans. Successive fishery and environment ministers, she ruled, missed the statutory deadlines by between four and 6½ years. Indeed, the government got cracking on this file only after five environmental groups took Ottawa to court.
The government’s delays, Mactavish wrote, were “unlawful.” That ministers of the Crown had deliberately broken an act of Parliament, she wrote, was “simply not acceptable … Public officials are not above the law.”
So why did the government break the law?
First, said Mactavish, it did so deliberately. “Conscious decisions were made from time to time within the ministers’ departments to delay or defer.”
Second, all four species inhabit areas affected by Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which is slated to run from Alberta’s tarsands to the British Columbia coast.
Mactavish noted, without comment, that the government denied that it was sacrificing animals in order to encourage industrial or pipeline development. But she also wrote that the government didn’t deny that the proposed pipeline would put the four named species at greater risk.
Third, cutbacks were taking their toll. “Lack of resources was a recurring theme,” Mactavish said. Staffing problems contributed to the delay. Yet the government insisted that understaffing was not the reason for its lackadaisical approach to the law. Instead it gave no clear reason, choosing to argue that, yes, it had acted illegally but, no, there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Which, in one sense, is true. There is no statutory penalty for a minister who breaks the Species at Risk Act.
Incidentally, the government admitted in court that it has failed to follow the law with regards to 167 other species at risk.
But in far too many cases we don’t know who or what is paying the price for getting Ottawa’s books in order. Will the country suffer in the long-run for this government’s infatuation with fiscal probity? Are the Conservatives streamlining government or cannibalizing it? We’d have a better idea if the government told us what exactly it was up to. We might feel more secure if it didn’t break the law. [Emphasis added]
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