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COLUMN: When governments abandon consultation, business should conduct its own

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 10/5/2018 10:05:00 AM

Government-sponsored public consultation appears to be headed for the dumpster and mid-sized businesses may well be among the losers. So may be some governing parties, though political parties seem able to change their stripes through change of leader more quickly than companies through change of CEO or other members of the executive team. 

There must be precious few Canadians who have not heard that Canada’s government is going to build the Trans Mountain Pipeline no matter the results of the court-ordered consultation. If the pipeline issue causes even a very small percentage of voters to switch from Liberal to Green or NDP in the 2019 federal election, it could easily lead to a loss for the Trudeau Liberals. 

In Alberta, the NDP government, already in some difficulty because of its economic policies, seems unaware that some among its base actually oppose the pipeline and will help ensure an NDP loss when the provincial election comes around.

In Ontario, the Progressive Conservative government is taking an axe to some environmental programs and, more significantly, is bypassing the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993 and the associated public consultation requirement in its haste to move forward with mostly non-urgent environmental policy turnarounds that will be unpopular with a significant percentage of voters. 

Public consultation requirements for environmental and other public policy initiatives have their Canadian roots in the 1980s. They were introduced to help provide a pathway for programs and projects that might otherwise be derailed by public opinion. It is easy for a community to fatally obstruct a plan for a new landfill site if the proponents do not put the arguments in favour of the project into the public domain. Sometimes consultation does bring out facts that have been ignored by planners, especially when those planners are politicians or heavily influenced by politicians. 

For example, in the 1980s, Ontario’s plan for a hazardous waste management facility on land in South Cayuga was derailed before a single shovel went into the ground because local residents pointed out that the location chosen by government politicians was on the flood plain of the Grand River, hardly a sensible location for a hazardous waste management facility! Indeed, the opponents, who spent large amounts of their own money and effort, did the province an even greater favour because the proposed facility has never been built anywhere in the province and their foresight has shown, perhaps fortuitously, that the facility would almost certainly have become a very expensive white elephant. 

As far back as 1993, I wrote: 

It used to be that we relied on governments, quasi-judicial regulatory tribunals and the courts to make environmental decisions for all of society. Increasingly we are realizing that such an approach is not satisfactory. Reliance on government alone often leads to ‘lose-lose’ outcomes that are very costly for business and provide inadequate protection for environmentalists. Over the last decade consultative approaches have been developed which provide ‘win-win’ outcomes: better environmental protection at less cost. To the extent that the costs of consultation are borne by government, public consultation programs actually provide a benefit to business. Public consultation helps to reduce conflict with local communities, reduces the costs for business of lawsuits initiated in an attempt to derail a project, allows business to avoid looking so much like an environmentally destructive ogre, and goes at least part way to protect business reputations.

In general, it will not be the federal or provincial governments that take the economic hit for reducing or eliminating consultation on environmentally controversial projects, though they should watch out for the political hit. The costs arising from reduced public consultation will be faced by business. There are already indications that some environmental and community groups are gearing up to take court action against companies that are proposing what are seen to be locally or regionally undesirable projects. Companies that do not engage in adequate consultation may well be tarred and feathered by the courts under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as by their retail customers, where such are present. 

We will likely return to an age where activists block bulldozers, something that, as the Canadian forest products industry has learned, through the Clayoquot Sound protests of the 1980s and early 1990s, can be very expensive — so much so that the industry eventually started negotiating with the activists and made a deal that ended most of the protest activity. 

Some governments appear to be pining for the environmental milieu of the 1970s, when they could bully their way through to whatever project they wanted to build or program they wanted to scrap. That approach is unlikely to work in the 2020s. So, if government is determined to proceed down that path, it will be up to companies that are involved in the projects or programs to develop their own strategies for consultation and for avoiding adverse consequences. 

After all, it is not inconceivable that an automobile manufacturer might be found liable by a court for the decline in health of an asthma sufferer arising from a plume of exhaust particulates from a neighbour’s clunker that would previously have been fixed through a provincial emissions testing and repair program. Replacing genuine consultation with win-lose litigation is unlikely to prove less costly for industry than genuine consultation. 

Isaacs, Colin F.W. Round Tables: a Canadian Approach to Consultation, published in Greener Management International, Sheffield, U.K.: October 1993. This article no longer appears to be online. E-mail me at colin@cialgroup.com and I will e-mail you a copy.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He has been involved in undertaking and reviewing a number of LCA studies. He can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone); (416) 362-5231 (fax); and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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