Thinning out the herd

Conservative minister must convince Canadians that the government cares

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The Gazette, Friday, October 6, 2006

The CBC had a startling headline to its website yesterday: "Climate change is not top issue, environment minister says."

Welcome to an interesting day, Rona Ambrose.

The headline was torqued from a story on her appearance before the House environment committee yesterday morning .

"She announced no new targets" for reducing greenhouse- gas emissions, the CBC reported, "and did not rank global warming as the top issue facing her department."

The story went on: "Canadians' No. 1 priority is air quality, meaning the purity of the air they breathe, while climate change is 'another issue that they're very concerned with,' she said."

Quote, unquote.

It's quite a leap, and a very misleading one, from there to the headline on the story.

It's true that clean air and clean water are the No. 1 environmental concerns of Canadians. The government's polls and focus groups over the summer confirm that.

Which isn't to say that climate change, and reducing GHG emissions, aren't top of mind. In Ambrose's own words, Canadians are very concerned about it.

Ambrose better be very concerned about it, too, because climate change is the frame the Harper government has used to change the channel from Kyoto.

For the Conservatives, the main value of the Kyoto accord is to remind Canadians of the Liberal legacy of failure in reducing GHG emissions. Far from making headway to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-12, Canada's emissions have increased by 27 per cent, a number recently revised upward from 24 per cent.

"Kyoto did not fail this country," Ambrose said of the protocol's unachievable targets, "The Liberal Party of Canada failed Kyoto."

Only Portugal and Spain, among selected OECD countries, have increased emissions more than Canada, writes Katherine Cinq-Mars in a telling article on Canada's dismal performance on climate change (www.irpp. org). "On a per-capita basis," she writes, "Canada now emits as much GHGs as the United States." And Canada's emissions have grown by twice the rate of the U.S.ones, which kind of makes you wonder where Paul Martin got the temerity to lecture the Americans on their record, when ours is twice as bad.

Ambrose's appearance comes a week after the release of a devastating audit by environment commissioner Johanne Gelinas, who blasted the previous government's "failure to confront one of the greatest challenges of our time."

Ambrose said yesterday Canada would remain within the Kyoto family, but has informed other governments we can't meet our treaty obligations. It's a pretty damning admission of failure, all of which occurred on the Liberal government's watch. There is every reason to believe that when Jean Chretien signed on to Kyoto, he knew we couldn't meet the targets. He certainly had no plan. Senior Environment officials made one up as they went along.

But the Conservatives are in government now, and if Kyoto isn't the plan, it's up to them to provide one. There's quite a bit riding on it, like maybe the future of this government with middle-class voters, so they'd better get it right.

Clean air being the top concern of Canadians, the Clean Air Act is the centrepiece of the government's environmental package. So that figures to be the first phase, perhaps next week, when the House is off on its Thanksgiving break.

Ambrose has had the week from hell in the House. She came under fire for comments taken out of context in an interview in the National Post where she said, Quebec "is not really a concern to me." The context was Quebec's attachment to Kyoto, not her lack of attachment to Quebec.

The Liberals and Bloc whipped themselves into a fury of righteous indignation, almost up to humiliation levels, "How dare the minister say that Quebec is not a concern to her?" demanded Lucienne Robillard in question period on Tuesday. "Why is the prime minister not denouncing these comments?"

Ambrose was forced to say, "I am sorry that my comments were misinterpreted. I know that Quebecers care about the environment and that is why they have to be part of our plan." For the first time since she's been in opposition, Ambrose was answering in her quite acceptable French.

She'll have a lot more to answer for starting next week. It's her opportunity to prove that she can be a forceful advocate of an important policy.

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