Brian Mulroney, environmental prince. Who knew?
By Robert Sheppard
CBC News Online
Published April 19, 2006
I hope this doesn't sound too churlish, especially with what seems like all of Ottawa and the cream of the environmental community lining up to honour Brian Mulroney as the greenest prime minister in recent history. But this really is a notion that comes at you out of the blue.
The man does have his achievements. The free trade agreement, though flawed, has generally served Canada well. On the international scene, the former Conservative prime minister certainly punched above his weight in helping bring an end to apartheid and civil war in the former Yugoslavia. And though I was no fan of Meech Lake, I'd give him marks for the particularly caring way he reached out to Quebec at a critical time in our nation's history.
But the environment? Yes, he closed the deal with Washington on an Acid Rain Treaty, ending a 10-year political fight that began in the Trudeau years. And, at least later in his tenure, he appointed strong ministers to the environment portfolio such as Lucien Bouchard and the up-and-coming Jean Charest, now premier of Quebec.
Both amassed huge budgets but also seemed more than a little distracted in the job: Bouchard left in a huff within two years to form the Bloc Québécois. Charest hung on while first the Charlottetown Accord, which he helped mightily to defend, and then the Conservative government went down to defeat.
The 1980s and early '90s, the period in which Mulroney was prime minister, was a time of fierce environmental battles, it should be remembered. Acid rain was a headline-a-day for years on end. There were celebrated fights with clear-cutting loggers in places like South Moresby Island, Clayoquot Sound and the Carmanah valley.
Dumping industrial pollutants into the Great Lakes and raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River were fast becoming huge political issues. As were the controversial Rafferty and Alameda dams in southern Saskatchewan, and the Oldman River dam in Alberta, for which Ottawa was taken to court for refusing to order a proper environmental assessment.
Environmentalists barely had a kind word to say about the Mulroney government in the day. And now they are lining up for tickets?
A cynic's take
I really do feel badly suggesting this, but I can't help feel that this event to honour Mulroney at something called the Earth Week Gala Dinner may have some ulterior motives associated with it.
It is of course sponsored by a magazine called Corporate Knights, a left-leaning publication that makes a point of honouring business execs who do the right thing by the environment.
And this idea of polling 12 "prominent Canadians" (10 of them environmentalists, one was former Liberal environment minister Sheila Copps) to determine the greenest PM in modern times came about just two years ago when pro-Kyoto Paul Martin, who likes to paint himself as the environmental PM, was in power.
Martin wasn't in great odour with environmentalists (and certainly not with leadership rival Copps) two years ago, however. He was being his usual prevaricating self. And you can see these environmentalists – they're clever clogs – wanting to light a little fire under him.
Flash forward to today. There is an anti-Kyoto Conservative prime minister in office in Stephen Harper. What better way to light a little fire under him, and perhaps create a new set of environmental issues that don't have the letters Kyoto in them, than to honour one of his mentors who has just recovered (and bravo to that) from a long illness.
The Mulroney record
From what we know of this competition for greenest PM, Mulroney took five of the 12 ballots, or 41 per cent, which seems like an appropriate score to judge his handling of some of the big environmental issues of his time.
Acid rain: The treaty with Washington was clearly a big feather in his cap, though one could argue it was the former Trudeau government that set the table by promising to cut Canada's sulphur emissions in half.
Nevertheless, Mulroney made the Reagan administration take this seriously and his deal led directly to the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1990 and a concerted crackdown on sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions from the big coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Midwest. They were largely responsible for the acid rain that was destroying Ontario and Quebec waterways.
The charts and maps on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website tell the story. Nitrogen oxides, a big smog contributor, haven't fallen as much but both pollutants are noticeably less than what they were in 1990.
St. Lawrence and Great Lakes action plans: These were the big high-profile projects of Bouchard and Charest. Cleaning up the St. Lawrence was a priority of the Quebec Liberal government and Mulroney's regime in Ottawa went at it with two five-year programs worth about $100 million each. However, as the Auditor General wrote in two reports, in 1993 and 1996, these action plans kept getting pushed back, suffered from the absence of long-range strategic planning and a host of other co-ordinating problems.
Global warming: Mulroney was initially out in front on this one but then things began to slip. In the run-up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio the Mulroney government promised to stabilize Canada's greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels. In the 1993 election the Chrétien Liberals went one better, promising a 20 per cent reduction, but then this fell back to six per cent less than 1990 levels in the actual Kyoto negotiations, a target Canada is unlikely to live up to in any event.
Forestry: The Mulroney government did step up in1987 to declare South Moresby Island, ancestral home of the Haida, a national reserve, to protect it from further logging. But it did seem largely on the sidelines as B.C. in particular tore itself apart in the '80s and early '90s, in an emotional jobs versus trees debate.
When it was over, the group Environment Probe wrote in one of its newsletters that there was an unexpected environmental benefit to Mulroney's 1988 free trade agreement with the U.S. By that it meant that pressure from U.S. lumber producers was forcing Ottawa and the provinces to increase stumpage fees and end the kind of government subsidies that had encouraged the low quality clear-cutting methods of the past.
It was kind of an ironic tip of the hat. But perhaps that was all the Mulroney environmental policies truly deserved.