Though Preston Manning likes to point out that the etymological root of “conservative” and “conservation” are the same, Canada’s right-wing political parties seem to be going out of their way these days to prove him wrong. In fact, wherever you look around the world, the alienation of conservatives from anything vaguely “green” is nearing completion.
In Australia, the recently elected Abbott government is obsessed with killing the tax on carbon pollution. In the lead-up to this year’s United States mid-term elections, an outright denial of climate change is an article of faith for Republicans. And in Ottawa, the Harper government’s dismemberment of long-standing environmental protections and attempts to shut down the nation’s most respected environmental organizations have reached epic proportions.
Meanwhile in Ontario, the Hudak Conservatives have clearly signalled their intentions. In a little-noticed paragraph of their platform on “red tape cutting,” the Ontario PC party promises to “focus the mandate of conservation authorities to balance the needs of our economy and our environment.”
In a document lacking virtually any other mention of the environmental issue (which itself is telling), this commitment stands out. Before probing its meaning, some background on conservation authorities is important.
Established by a Progressive Conservative government in 1946, Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities are some of the largest landowners in the province. As public, non-profit agencies, their primary mission is to protect water quality and ensure effective water management. The urgency of the authorities’ work picked up speed after the devastation and loss of life from Hurricane Hazel in 1954. And it has been shaped recently by strenuous efforts through the Clean Water Act to ensure that the province learns the lessons of the Walkerton tainted water tragedy.
Twelve million Ontarians — 90 per cent of the provincial population — live in watersheds managed by conservation authorities. On sunny weekends in both winter and summer, countless people enjoy the high-quality programming and picnic opportunities afforded by conservation areas like Albion Hills, Kortright and the Leslie St. Spit. The fact that the GTA experienced incredible flooding last year without loss of life, and that our water quality is as reliable as it now is, is also testimony to the conservation authorities’ effective, quiet work re-establishing marshlands, improving shorelines and river courses, and planting trees.
So what’s the problem? What would motivate the Hudak Conservatives, as one of their only environmental promises, to meddle with the raison d’être of these thoroughly inoffensive public agencies?
Blatant pandering to corporate interest at the expense of common sense would appear to be the answer.
Because conservation authorities have to permit what gets built in flood plains (you know, those places that fill up with water when it rains), some moneyed and powerful developers have been chafing at these long-established rules. In some extreme recent cases, developers and their allies in municipal governments have even tried to get certain conservation authorities dismantled because they were impatient at not getting their way.
In a clear sign that Conservatives have painted a target on conservation authorities’ backs, the Toronto Sun has, out of nowhere, started to feature inflammatory articles digging into authorities’ budgets.
So, egged on by developers with dollar signs in their eyes, and the conservative Greek chorus at Sun Media, Hudak is apparently intent to force conservation authorities to ignore the lessons of Hurricane Hazel, kowtow to development interests and hastily approve buildings in dodgy, wet places where buildings shouldn’t go.
Why should Ontarians care? For a couple of reasons.
First, the substance of this promise is terrible. While developers may make money from ill-considered building in flood plains, it’s the rest of us who will pay the price in terms of cleanup costs, degraded water quality and elevated insurance rates. GTA ravines used to have lots of buildings in them. Once Hurricane Hazel swept them away, we realized as a province that perhaps it was a dumb place to build and these lands would better serve the public good by being kept as open space.
And second, this promise speaks volumes about Tim Hudak’s values and his willingness to sacrifice the public interest in the crassest of ways. By promising to neuter respected agencies created by Progressive Conservatives more than half a century ago, he breaks with a conservation-friendly tradition in his own party and lines up with the decidedly anti-green tendencies of the modern conservative movement.
Bill Davis looks pretty good right about now.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.