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A version of the following article appeared in the Hill Times

The Commons Report: Parliament to Planet
The public consultation season is in full swing again


By Elizabeth May
August 8, 2005


Nothing is more likely to reinforce the cynicism of a jaded public than efforts to "consult" them over the summer months. As predictable as an unpopular government press release on a Friday afternoon is the perennial 60-90 day comment period running through the dog days of summer.

Last summer it was the Council of Great Lakes Governors and the proposed agreement to permit diversions from the Great Lakes. It was launched in mid July 2004 and as an added bonus to being in mid-summer, it ran 90 days smack into the U.S. Presidential election insanity. One can imagine that many U.S. citizens who paid attention to environmental politics were busy trying to defeat Bush, while those who paid less attention were on vacation. At least in Canada, our election was over and residents of Ontario rose up to defend the Great Lakes against diversions. Amazingly, over 10,000 comments were received.

This summer, the Great Lakes agreements are back for consultation. The agreements are substantially changed from what was released last year. Democracy works, and the public outcry over a scheme for diversions led to significant improvement. Still there are some serious flaws. The agreements are very complex and nearly impenetrable. This time around the public has only 60 days for comment.

Released at the ideal moment, the last working day before the July 1 and July 4 weekend, 2005 comments must be received by Aug. 29. (To get a quick summary see www.sierraclub.ca for our Citizens Primer.) The Great Lakes governors and Premiers of Ontario and Quebec have an excuse this time. The negotiations didn't come to agreement before the summer was upon us. They feared waiting for fall due to state elections and more changes in leadership.

If you care about the Great Lakes, you'll be busy over the summer. But what if you care about the Great Lakes and are concerned about the long term disposal of high level nuclear waste? You better cancel your beach time. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization has chosen the summer months for public comment on its recommendations on nuclear waste. Unlike the Great Lakes Governors and Premiers whose excuse for summer consultations was evident as they laboured through protracted negotiations, it is harder to see any rationale, other than the anti-democratic for the timing of the NWMO consultation. It appears the recommendations were ready well before summer. Still, the months of June, July and August are the prescribed period for public comment and organized "dialogue sessions."

The heat is really on if you live in Ontario and care about the future of the Great Lakes, the disposal of high level nuclear waste and the choices Ontario will make about its energy future. The Ontario Power Authority has set an even shorter period from early July to late August for public comment on choices of power sources--from dirty coal to overpriced and dangerous nuclear.

Of course, if you are in Nova Scotia, your deadline was the end of July for comments on the draft guidelines for the environmental assessment of the tar ponds environmental impact statement.

Meanwhile, the Alberta government is consulting on its greenhouse gas emissions reduction framework.

This is not to say that no government should ask its citizens for comment on key policy initiatives over the summer. It should, however, be a cardinal principle of public consultations that, barring extreme and unusual circumstances, public consultations should take place when the public has a fighting chance of noticing the process and participating. Christmas and Hanukkah holidays should be off-limits, but they are not. I have had several Christmases that felt stolen from me by consultation deadlines. The deadline for briefs on offshore oil and gas development in Cape Breton ruined Christmas for many families of fishermen and whale watch captains and other volunteers who had to work through the holidays to meet a Dec. 29 deadline.

Summer months should not be a time when the number of consultations pile up. Public consultations should be held to provide realistic opportunities for volunteers and average citizens to make their views known. Public consultations should not be organized to thwart public engagement.

Elizabeth May is executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.



 


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