Harper Government ‘Extrapolated’ Public Reaction Before Cutting Millions From Environment Canada Budget

Instead of consulting with the Canadian public before cutting millions in green spending at Environment Canada, the Harper government consulted with communications strategists who helped gauge potential public reactions to the budget cuts.

Mike De Souza writes for Postmedia News, that according to "internal briefing documents" released through access to information legislation, the "Harper government included communications strategists in closed-door discussions that led to an estimated $60 million in cuts at Environment Canada in the 2012 federal budget."

"Strategists from the communication branch were involved in Environment Canada's deliberations on its contribution to the deficit action reduction plan from the beginning," said the records, which were labelled "secret advice to the minister." The briefing documents, containing up to 500 pages, were prepared for Environment Canada Deputy Minister Bob Hamilton, after he replaced Paul Boothe in summer 2012.

Hamilton was also warned in a communications strategy that "Media and public alike have been highly critical of the government of Canada, expressing concern over its cuts to science-based activities." The strategy listed "Reassuring Canadians that their health and safety have not been put at risk as a result of recent cuts" and convincing them that the "government of Canada takes the environment portfolio seriously" as among their "communications challenges."  

The released documents explain that bringing the communications branch in on the closed-door discussions preceding the budget cuts "allowed an analysis of communication issues, stakeholder reactions and public perception to be weighed during the consideration of each and every proposal." It also kept communications staff primed and "ready to hit the ground running once the decisions were announced."

In a follow-up piece, De Souza reports Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson as confirming that the communications specialists' analysis "consisted of identifying stakeholders who may have an interest in any particular proposal, studying the positions they have taken on related issues, and extrapolating from that, what their reactions might be to the proposal at hand."

Johnson added that the "confidential nature" of the deliberations prevented "actual formal consultation on any particular proposal with stakeholders."

NDP environment critic Megan Leslie told De Souza she was disappointed to see the Harper government's "backwards" method of reaching decisions, saying she feels "their guiding principle in making these decisions is: 'Let's see what we can get away with.'"  

Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, also found the approach "a bit backwards," saying it's "wrong for communications people to be involved in deciding what decisions to make. Communications people are there to communicate the decisions after they're made. It seems the government is just being political rather than (doing) what's in the best interests of Canadians."

Leslie advised the Harper government to "hire and consult scientists on how to manage the department, not communications experts to give us spin about these ideological cuts."

Environment Canada said that "senior science managers, knowledgeable in the relevant areas, were involved as appropriate in order to provide context."

De Souza observes that the documents didn't elaborate on "what sort of consultations might have taken place with Environment Minister Peter Kent or deliberations with government scientists, who worked in the field, on spending reductions in areas such as federal response capacity to environmental disasters or quality control in enforcing industrial air pollution regulations."

Kent's office responded by saying that they "led in arriving at the final decisions regarding the measures across the department and were therefore, obviously regularly informed and briefed accordingly."

De Souza notes that the records "estimated that Environment Canada's 2015-16 budget would be $949 million, down from a peak of $1.3 billion in 2007-08."

Image Credit: The Prime Minister's Office / Flickr

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

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