Ford government's COVID-19 economic recovery bill broke the law, auditor general says - 2020-07-21
The Ford government broke the law by passing its omnibus economic recovery bill Tuesday without consulting the public on major environmental changes, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said. The government used its majority to pass the legislation, Bill 197, on Tuesday night over the objections of opposition parties. The omnibus bill makes sweeping changes to 20 pieces of legislation, including major rewrites of environmental law. Under Ontario's Environmental Bill of Rights, the Progressive Conservative government is required to post measures that impact the environment on the Environmental Registry and consult the public for 30 days. The government posted notices on the registry but did not hold consultations about Bill 197, which was introduced in early July.
"We did give (the government) a heads up indicating that we had concerns on Friday," Lysyk said in a phone interview with Canada's National Observer. "We indicated that the bill, before it passes third reading, should be posted on the Environmental Registry (for a full 30 day consultation)." Green advocates have said measures in the bill amount to a rollback of environmental protections. It includes a rewrite of environmental assessment rules — the government will now decide which projects get environmental assessments, rather than reviewing most public sector projects by default. It also streamlines assessments for projects that do need them, and removes a mechanism that allows the public to ask the environment minister to require a full review of a project. The government has said it's working on more regulations to decide which projects should get assessments, and to define what streamlined assessments would look like.
The bill also expands the government's power to override the normal land planning process and potential opposition to projects through Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs). Premier Doug Ford has previously said the proposed rewrite would be used to speed up infrastructure projects that would help Ontario recover from the financial hit it has taken during COVID-19. "We aren't going to dodge (environmental assessments) or anything," Ford told reporters when the legislation was first introduced. Ontario NDP environment critic Ian Arthur wrote to the province's auditor general to ask for an investigation into Bill 197, which Arthur said may be a violation of the Environmental Bill of Rights. #onpoli "We're going to make sure we strengthen them, but we're going to do them quicker and smarter." The government previously told National Observer it included a measure in the bill to exempt it from public consultation requirements under the Environmental Bill of Rights. Lysyk said only the portion of the bill that deals with environmental assessments included that exception, not the one about MZOs. And either way, the government still needs to consult the public, she said, adding that it would be "precedent-setting" to allow the government to retroactively give itself an exception to the rules. "It could undermine public confidence," she said. NDP environment critic Ian Arthur said the legislative process doesn't work the way government was attempting to use it. "You can't embed a change that affects legislation being tabled in the legislation itself," he said.