By Don Pearson, General Manager, Conservation Ontario
Two recent reports are bound to influence the agenda of the Ontario legislature in the weeks and months to come. On November 20th, media reported that the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services, under the leadership of Don Drummond, former Chief Economist at TD Bank, would recommend “merging government departments and agencies to save money.” That process began with the Ministry of Health Promotion being folded into the Ministry of Health in mid-October. Further insights into the extent of possible consolidation will become public with a preliminary report due in January, leading into the spring provincial budget. The imperative of a $16 billion deficit should give the government the political room it needs to initiate substantive change, but we shall see.
One week later, Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller released his Annual Report card on how well the government is meeting its environmental challenges and commitments, and, frankly gave a failing grade. In his report, Engaging Solutions, Miller makes observations on the disconnect between identification of problems and solutions, and actual progress with implementation of those solutions. He uses the examples of solid waste management and the Endangered Species Act, where policy doesn’t seem to translate into action. But he also raises the fact that funding to the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Natural Resources has declined (in 2009 dollars) by 45% and 22% respectively since 1992/1993; and as a percentage of government operational costs, from 2.15% to .76%.
We don’t know if Mr. Drummond will go so far as to recommend consolidation of these two Ministries, but one could legitimately make the observation that both could be eliminated and the government will still have a $15 billion dollar problem! Clearly, if there are to be substantial savings in government operations, efficiencies need to be found where expenditures are greatest – in Health Care and in Education. Yet Drummond maintains that these two areas should be protected from restraint measures and in fact be allowed to grow at 3% and 1% per year respectively. According to the Globe and Mail (November 23, 2011), everything else will need to be cut by 1.6% each year if a balanced budget is to be achieved by 2017/2018. Something major will need to change or the Environmental Commissioner’s next Annual Report will sound very familiar!
It is almost a cliché that in times of economic stress, the environment takes a back seat. And yet, over the past decade we have been told that the economy is dependent on the environment; ergo, a healthy economy requires a healthy environment. If we are serious, we need to prove it and start turning this model around. I don’t believe that the discussion should focus on money, but on effective implementation. If Drummond gets it right, he won’t be looking to trim non-existent fat, but to consolidate legislation, regulations and policies, and streamline environmental management so that it is not positioned as a drag on business and the economy; but rather as one of our Province’s key competitive advantages.