Occasional articles - 2004. Reprint of Article published in The Hill Times, Oct 4, 2004

Safety First? Ottawa sends mixed signals on regulations

Government quietly drifts in direction of promoting economic interests ahead of public safety

Last summer’s experiences with SARS and the Asian longhorned beetle have highlighted how rapid global transportation and trade make us more vulnerable to the spread of deadly diseases and invasive ecological pests. The Walkerton and North Battleford drinking water disasters and before that, the tainted blood tragedy pointed to the consequences when governments lose their focus on the importance of protecting public health, safety and the environment. You might expect that in light of these events, the federal government would be increasing its capacity to respond to such threats, tooling up and strengthening its regulatory structures for protecting public goods. But the signals coming out of Ottawa lately suggest the opposite. In 2003 the federal government launched a ‘smart regulation’ initiative, with the appointment of an External Advisory Committee on Smart Regulation (EACSR) as its centrepiece. Unfortunately, instead of putting a sensible emphasis on ensuring government can protect public goods, the committee’s final report, released September 23, looks anything but "smart." The Prime Minister has put Treasury Board President Reg Alcock in charge of implementing the Committee’s proposals.The Committee recommends that key regulatory agencies, like Health Canada and Environment Canada, put less emphasis on ensuring the protection of human health and the environment, and much more on promoting "innovation", "competitiveness" and "efficiency" when evaluating the safety of new foods, drugs, pesticides and chemicals. It also recommends a further dilution of authority of these expert regulatory agencies, in favour of a further concentration of power in the Privy Council Office and Treasury Board. The federal government’s quiet drift in the direction of promoting the economic interests of regulated industries, ahead of the protection of public health and safety, has already been the subject of growing concern. In his 2000 report to Parliament, the Auditor General of Canada implicitly criticized this direction, asking the government "to clarify the priorities of the regulatory policy for health and safety regulatory programs". He cited an internal government report, reviewed during the audit, written by senior federal officials who were uncomfortable with an emerging "client service" mentality towards regulated industries. The officials recommended a renewed focus on protecting the public interest in the federal government’s health and safety programs. The Auditor General also highlighted an unsurprising Health Canada finding, from that department’s 1999 National Consultations Report: Canadians believe that where regulatory functions of government are concerned, "health and safety must take precedence over economic and other considerations." Indeed, public opinion polling over the past decade has consistently found that Canadians expect their governments to take strong regulatory action to protect public health, safety and the environment. The federal government has never adequately responded to the Auditor General. Now the EACSR, inexplicably, wants to further entrench, in both policy and law, the emphasis on innovation over safety. Consistent with its focus on efficiency, the Committee also makes the surprising suggestion that instead of evaluating the safety of new foods, drugs, chemicals and other products at home, Canada should accept the approvals given by other countries. This advice should prompt every Canadian to ask how rigorous other countries’ processes might be. Can we depend on foreign regulators, who are completely unaccountable to Canadians, for their decisions? Should we not insist that our own government continue to decide what risks are acceptable to Canadians? The EACSR report ignores the clear evidence of the failure of experiments with voluntary, innovation-friendly approaches to health, safety and environmental regulation over the past decade. We’ve seen how voluntary approaches to ensuring compliance with environmental and health laws contributed to the Walkerton and North Battleford disasters. We’ve also witnessed the utter failure of "voluntary" mechanisms for industrial greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The EACSR chose to ignore these failures. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, the report also claims that non-regulatory approaches offer "better results" than traditional regulation. The fact is that, in spite of all the anti-regulation rhetoric, environmental regulations, where adequately enforced, have achieved their objectives. Acid rain control regulations adopted in the 1980s produced dramatic reductions in industrial emissions of sulphur dioxide. Federal and provincial regulations enacted in the early 1990s resulted in major reductions in water pollution from the pulp and paper industry. Federal regulations phasing out lead in gasoline produced major improvements in atmospheric lead levels. Other governments have realized that a stronger approach is needed to protect the health, safety and environment of their citizens. Even Mike Harris’s common sense revolutionaries came to the conclusion, after the Walkerton disaster, that the only effective way to protect drinking water quality was through strong regulatory action. The EACSR’s recommended path, on the other hand, can only lead to further tragedies. The committee’s recommendations are a serious source of concern among public health, environmental and consumer organisations. National public interest groups who commented on the EACSR's draft report were unanimous in saying that Canadians expect governments to rebuild and retain the capacity to implement and enforce public health, safety and environmental regulations.It remains to be seen whether the federal government will heed the warnings it has been given about the potential consequences for Canadians if it takes the path proposed in this report. The Martin government may find itself on shaky ground with the public if it pursues a form of "smart regulation" that so obviously favours private economic interests over the public interest. Hugh Benevides is Research Associate and Paul Muldoon is Executive Director and Counsel of the Canadian Environmental Law Association. Mark Winfield is Director of Environmental Governance at the Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development. Their submissions to the EACSR can be found at www.cela.ca.