Four good men with extensive government experience tried to stop the Harper government. Predictably, they failed – predictably, because this government listens to almost no one who actually knows about given policy fields.
In this instance, four former ministers of Fisheries and Oceans from previous Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments pleaded with the Harperites not to water down environmental protection for fish habitats.
"A competent science establishment and vigorous enforcement programs are essential to protect fish stocks and the habitat on which they depend," wrote former ministers Thomas Siddon, Herb Dhaliwal, John Fraser and David Anderson.
Too late. The government monster budget bill that assaulted the traditions of parliamentary oversight by lumping together all sorts of unrelated measures was already steamrollering through the Commons when the former ministers' letter arrived. Part of the bill they deplored gutted protection for certain fish habitats, since this government is much more interested in clearing paths for pipelines, roads, bridges and other pieces of infrastructure than worrying about fish.
Neither the brave four, nor any other experts in the field of fisheries (or other scientific fields for that matter), can deter this government once its mind is made up. And this government, as is repeatedly seen, cares little for environmental protection.
Another example. Since 1968, scientists from Canada and abroad have been studying fish populations and lake ecosystems in a series of protected lakes in northwestern Ontario. Called Canada's Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), its waters and aquatic life have been used by scientists to study the impact of pollution on water resources in an age of climate change, algae blooms, mercury and other chemical agents.
Eight eminent scientists from Canada and the United States wrote to the government pleading to keep open the ELA. Sorry, came the reply. We'll find some other government, university or agency to run the ELA, replied the government.
Science in Canada far too often plays a secondary role in policy surrounding fisheries.
In the United States, science lies at the heart of many fisheries decisions. The Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries of Conservation and Management Act, passed in 1976 and revised many times, establishes local fisheries councils and mandates them to adhere to binding scientific advice on catch limits and rebuilding of overfished stocks.
This legislation, as many Canadian scientists have noted and as a comprehensive report on marine biodiversity from the Royal Society of Canada underscored, has helped turn around failing fisheries in the U.S., while preventing other fisheries from failing.
Science in the U.S., not the politics surrounding ministerial discretion as in Canada, lies at the heart of the U.S. law. The Canadian Fisheries Act and the Oceans Act do not put science at the heart of decisions about fisheries.
The Royal Society, as one would expect of experts, recommended that "independent, arm's-length advisory of decision-making bodies" be established with a mandate to conserve biodiversity, allocate catches, protect species at risk and do environmental impact assessments.
Alas, no government (and not just the Harper one) wants to be so beholden to science. Nor do many of the interest groups in the fisheries who prefer, when necessary, to use political means to get results for themselves. A Magnuson-Stevens law would reduce their means of applying political pressure.
The Harper government has muzzled fisheries scientists (and those in other areas) because they might tell truths the government does not want to be heard. Everything in this government must be authorized or vetted so as to become politicalspeak. Scientists, by definition, cannot be trusted to understand this way of conveying non-information.
So nice try, former ministers and renowned scientists. You raised important issues. It could have been predicted, however, that the government would not listen.