Environment Minister Peter Kent is suggesting four former federal fisheries ministers who penned a letter critical of the regulatory changes in the budget implementation bill haven't read the legislation.

kentmay30-300

Environment Minister Peter Kent suggested Thursday that four former fisheries ministers critical of the budget implementation bill weren't familiar with the content of the legislation. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The authors of the letter, two Liberals and two Progressive Conservatives now retired from politics, questioned the Harper government's placing of environment measures in a money bill.

Mulroney-era Conservatives Tom Siddon and John Fraser and Chrétien-era Liberals Herb Dhaliwal and David Anderson also asked what outside groups may have pressured the government into making the changes.

Pressed by reporters to respond Thursday, Kent turned the table on the former ministers' concerns, suggesting it was they who were "responding as much to some of the NGO response as to reading the detailed content of the legislation."

When asked to clarify whether he meant to suggest that the retired politicians hadn't read the legislation, Kent said that "by their remarks they seem not to be familiar with the specifics of the Act, yes, and the way the Act will be applied."

The bill would significantly scale back the environmental review process and redefine which waterways require protection as fish habitat.

The four ex-ministers called on the Harper government to have the Fisheries Act provisions reviewed by the parliamentary fisheries committee and not a sub-committee normally tasked with reviewing finance legislation.

"We find it troubling that the government is proposing to amend the Fisheries Act via omnibus budget legislation in a manner that we believe will inevitably reduce and weaken the habitat protection provisions," the letter said.

Wednesday evening, Siddon testified before the Commons sub-committee studying the environmental provisions in the budget bill, saying the proposed legislation makes "Swiss cheese" out of the current Fisheries Act.

Act 'contemporized'

Current Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfied told the CBC earlier this week that the changes were part of the government's "common sense approach to managing the fishery" and said that consultations were held with farmers and stakeholders from the aboriginal, commercial and recreational fisheries before the legislation was presented.

Kent told reporters Thursday that Parliamentarians had responded positively to what they'd learned about the legislation during committee testimony by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Ashfield and himself.

The environment minister added that the Fisheries Act has not been updated for 40 years and that it was due to be "contemporized."

"Fish habitat is very much a continuing concern on the fisheries side of the new legislation and section 36 will continue to be a big part of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act," Kent said.

"We listen to those concerns. We'll respond to those concerns," Kent told reporters. "But I think that some of the reaction has come before full consumption of what the Act says and what the Act will actually do."

Several opposition MPs raised former Tory minister Siddon's concerns during Thursday's question period.

Ashfield's parliamentary secretary Randy Kamp quoted from fish habitat policy implemented by Siddon during his tenure, insisting those protections will still be in force.

"I think it's passing strange ... that New Democrats have to stand in the House of Commons and defend the Mulroney-era environmental record against these new Conservatives, who care not a whit for the environment. So it trust me this is a strange moment for us," MP Nathan Cullen said later.

with files from CBC's Margo McDiarmid