Toronto Star
OPINION, Monday, December 15, 2003, p. A27

Liberals launch green week

Ian Urquhart
Toronto Star

A gloom-and-doom economic statement from Finance Minister Greg Sorbara will be the highlight this week at Queen's Park.

Perhaps as a diversion from Sorbara's bad news, however, the Liberal government also plans to unveil a series of environmental announcements and bills this week.

Internally, the Liberals are calling it their "green week."

According to various informed sources, the measures to be announced (by Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky and Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen) include:

Establishment of a 600,000-acre "greenbelt" from Niagara Falls to Lake Scugog. The Liberals are expected to start slowly here by setting up an advisory body to make recommendations on how to proceed. It will be interesting to see whether they slap a freeze on development in the greenbelt area while the study is underway.

Amendments to tighten up the Planning Act. At the behest of developers, the previous Conservative government loosened the act. As the Liberals see it, that move encouraged sprawl, especially in the Greater Toronto Area.

Reining in of the Ontario Municipal Board. The OMB is a court of appeal on planning decisions, and under the Tories it usually sided with the developers against municipalities and ratepayers. The Liberals say they will restore some balance to the process.

Hiring of more environmental inspectors to monitor water systems. This is a follow-up to the Walkerton water disaster.

All these measures were in the Liberals' election platform and, aside from the water inspectors, they won't cost the government anything.

Thus, they will enable the Liberals to say they are keeping their promises without compounding Sorbara's fiscal problems.

The measures will also be welcomed by environmentalists, although the developers will be mightily annoyed.

The Liberals are clearly trying to court the environmental movement. Various environmental groups, ranging from Earthroots to the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, have been involved in consultations with the government in the run-up to this week.

Other moves the environmentalists will be looking for this week include: "Source protection" for our drinking water (including stricter limits on farm waste and fertilizers); curbs on the taking of water for bottling or export; a categorical rejection of the proposal to ship Toronto's garbage to an abandoned mine in Kirkland Lake; and a pledge not to reinstate the spring bear hunt.

And the municipalities are hoping for financial assistance on the blue box recycling program.

Under the Tories, a law was passed that would require businesses to pay for municipal recycling programs in proportion to the amount of their products that ends up in blue boxes. But the law was never implemented as some major retailers and fast-food chains mounted a spirited lobby against it.

Similarly, the agricultural lobby pressured the Tories to move slowly on restrictions on farm waste and fertilizer; some northerners pushed to keep open the Kirkland Lake option for Toronto's garbage; and hunters lobbied for the reinstatement of the spring bear hunt.

Again, many of these measures were contained in the Liberal platform and none would cost the government much, if anything.

But given the strength of the lobbies, the Liberals may be reluctant to move on any of them.

One other environmental pledge in the Liberal platform would be very expensive to implement: the phasing-out of the government-owned coal-fired power plants by 2007.

With the current turmoil in the electricity market, it is unlikely the Liberals will do any more this week than simply restate their commitment on the coal-fired plants without saying how they will accomplish it.

The government is, however, expected to announce the creation of a blue-ribbon panel to study the future of the ailing Pickering nuclear reactors and related issues.

Taken together, all these moves would put a green stamp on the Liberals- one they have long sought, not just to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives but also to lure votes away from the New Democrats.

But environmentalists are hard to please. (Ask Bob Rae or David Peterson, both of whom ran afoul of them during their terms as premier.) The green week may buy the Liberals no more than a temporary respite from criticism, not to mention a lot of grief from developers, farmers, retailers, hunters, northerners and others.

Dalton McGuinty has been advised to bring environmentalists into his tent in the form of an advisory group.

They then might think twice about bashing the government lest they lose their seats at the table.

It is a move that could be good for the environment; it would definitely be good politics.

Ian Urquhart writes on provincial affairs. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. iurquha @ thestar.ca.