Sometimes a politician can stumble and tell the truth.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird did precisely that this week when he took a garden variety question from Liberal interim leader Bob Rae and turned his guns on a small advisory group known as the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.
The Conservatives killed it in this year’s budget.
In the litany of Conservative cuts and the much more contentious overhaul of environmental assessments in this country, the roundtable’s death was destined to be a footnote.
Until Baird, a former environment minister, rose in the House of Commons to kick more dirt on the corpse.
“Why should taxpayers have to pay for more than 10 reports promoting a carbon tax, something which the people of Canada have repeatedly rejected?’’ Baird thundered. “That is a message the Liberal party just will not accept. It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government to no discussion of a carbon tax that would kill and hurt Canadian families.’’
When Environment Minister Peter Kent defended the decision to kill the agency the day after the budget, he merely said it had outlived its usefulness and was providing analysis done elsewhere, at universities and other agencies.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was back on that message.
But Baird’s intervention invited scrutiny of the motivation behind the Harper government move, a motivation that appears to be political ideology, not the pocket-change savings of barely $5 million.
To hear Baird, the NRTEE was out carousing with those “radical” environmentalists, taking its wisdom on the environment from those other enemies of the state, Stéphane Dion and Tom Mulcair.
But if anything, the agency was a creature of the radical centre.
Its outgoing president, David McLaughlin was so radical he had once been chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney, more recently chief of staff to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, a member of the tribe and appointed because he was a trusted member of that tribe.
It was the only organization in the country that by its very mandate had to study both the economic side and the environmental side of climate change, but never one at the exclusion of another.
But in recent years, the Harper government stopped listening to the NRTEE, just as it tunes out other arm’s-length agencies that offer advice.
The roundtable had freedom to go anywhere it wanted, but consistently stayed within the parameters of the stated government climate policy of the day, operating on consensus, submitting its plans to the environment minister, sending draft reports to his office, providing economic facts and figures, never pushing the government on its greenhouse gas emissions targets, providing data, not criticism.
But the government largely ignored them. Others did not.
Twin reports entitled Achieving 2050 were downloaded 51,605 times. A report on water sustainability was downloaded 33,565 times, another one entitled Climate Prosperity was downloaded 25,592 times and was linked to from national and international media websites.
The NRTEE website gets more than 500,000 hits each year.
In recent years, it was publishing more reports and organizing more events than it had since the Mulroney era, but was still returning a surplus at the end of the year.
In this case, motives abound — shutting down discordant voices on the environment, dismantling another part of the Mulroney legacy, wrapping up something you never listened to anyway.
One official with knowledge of the roundtable’s workings said by quieting such voices the government is narrowcasting its message.
Tim Harper is a syndicated national affairs writer for the Toronto Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.