Environmental Policy: Process and Spending but Few Results

Last Christmas, I received the complete set of the BBC comedy series, Yes Minister, as a gift.

The series explores the hilarious interplay between the hapless Minister of the fictional British Department of Administrative Affairs, the Honourable Jim Hacker and his head civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby and the cross-purposes of their goals. Hacker began his ministerial career with the lofty and altruistic ambition to make Britain a better place to live, while Sir Humphrey’s is simply to expand the department and ensure that the “rule by civil servant” continues.

In fact, in one episode, in which Sir Humphrey reports on the opening of a new hospital, he tells the Minister that it has 500 staff and is running life a fine Swiss watch.

“Splendid, Humphrey,” says the Minister, sensing a political opportunity. “And how many patients are we looking after?”

Sir Humphrey, looking shocked, responds: “None. We’re not ready, Minister.”

So what, the Minister asks, are 500 people doing in a patient-free hospital? Speaking as if to a little child, Sir Humphrey describes the memo writing, the human resource activities, the studies and the committees, all contributing to a well-run hospital. “In fact,” he beams, “we’re up for an award.”

Funny, no doubt, but it slowly dawns on you that the episode is closer to reality than is comfortable.

Public spending on the environment, broadly defined, has exploded. Canada’s Sir Humphreys, sensing a golden opportunity, started expanding their empires, all the while assuring their ministers, “There are lots of good things happening.” What are we really getting for all this money and, more importantly, what are we seeing in the way of real environmental changes such as cleaner air and water, more wildlife, endangered species recovery and better flood control?

In 2006, the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, Johanne Gélinas, issued a critical report on the climate change activities of the government of Canada from 1997 to 2005. She noted, “Since 1997, the government has announced over $6 billion in funding for initiatives on climate change.”

The Commissioner went on to say:

“On the whole, the government’s response to climate change is not a good story. At a government-wide level, our audits revealed inadequate leadership, planning and performance. To date, the approach has lacked foresight and direction and has created confusion and uncertainty for those trying to deal with it. Many of the weaknesses identified in our audits are of the government’s own making.”

It does not matter if you believe in global warming or not, the Commissioner’s example points to an appalling waste of money and resources at a time when we have real environmental problems which are not being addressed. What did that $6 billion buy us, besides an increase in the size of the federal civil service? How many lakes have been cleaned up, water treatment plants built, riverbanks protected and wildlife conserved?

For example, take Lake Winnipeg. The lake experiences serious algae blooms due to excess nutrient inflows. But the provincial and federal response has simply been more boards, commissions and advisory boards.

In 1998, we got the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium. In 2003, the Manitoba government released the Lake Winnipeg Action Plan, and then created the Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board (LWSB). That was followed, in 2005, by a “Report on Public Discussion. Finally, last year, the LWSB released its final report.

Not to be outdone, the federal environment minister of the time, Stephane Dion, waded in (pun intended) and announced a $1.1 million per year water quality monitoring program in 2005. The Conservatives continued the tradition and announced it would spend $18 million on Lake Winnipeg, assuring us that “The increased funding for the clean up of the Lake Winnipeg Basin will support a science-based approach to understanding how nutrient runoff affects the ecology of the lake and how to control nutrient contributions in watersheds.”

But we already know “how to control nutrient contributions in watersheds.” What we really need are programs that actually fix things, not more studies, committees and consultations. Not one cent of the money spent so far has kept one nutrient molecule from entering Lake Winnipeg.

Don’t blame our elected officials, however. They rely on departmental “experts,” whose goals may be at cross purposes to theirs. When the Minister asks if he is sure this is the right thing to do for the environment, our very own Sir Humphreys quickly reply: “Yes, Minister!”