OPINION | Government's red-tape legislation stumps the NDP and the minister who tabled it
Journalists had lots of questions but Grant Hunter didn't have answers
I have to admit, I've always had trouble understanding exactly what it is that Grant Hunter, Alberta's associate minister of red-tape reduction, actually does.
It would seem Hunter himself has the same problem.
On Thursday morning, while holding a news conference on Bill 22 — the Red Tape Reduction Implementation Act — Hunter had difficulty explaining details of his own piece of legislation.
The bill is huge. It makes changes to 14 pieces of legislation in six different ministries. It would, among other things, allow oilsands projects to go ahead without cabinet approval, scrap Energy Efficiency Alberta, and allow all Canadians — not just Albertans — to purchase public land.
However, when journalists questioned Hunter on why he was making these changes, he seemed stumped. He told reporters to ask the affected cabinet minister for an answer. That would have been fine if there had been other cabinet ministers at the news conference. But we only had Hunter.
He tried to explain that scrapping Energy Efficiency Alberta would be offset by the continuation of another agency, Emissions Reduction Alberta. But reporters wanted to know if the efficiency agency's programs, which include green technology loans, would be cut.
Hunter didn't seem to know: "The minister of environment and parks will be bringing forward those initiatives and so whatever initiatives he'll be bringing forward you'll have to ask him about those."
Questions begging for answers
On the issue of the provincial cabinet giving up the ability to approve proposed oilsands projects, Hunter said the idea is to speed up the process and "take politics out of the regulatory decision-making process."
Hmm. But isn't the government giving up a crucial oversight power?
Hunter: "You're going to have to talk to the environment minister about that — and the energy minister."
By this point it was like a one-sided tennis match, where journalists were lobbing questions to Hunter but rather than lobbing something back he was sticking them in his pocket.
Another frustrated question: If every other province has a dedicated energy efficiency agency, why is Alberta scrapping its own agency?
Another Hunterian non-answer: "That would be a very good question to ask the minister of environment."
Hunter appeared completely out of his depth. He gave the impression he is more errand boy than cabinet minister.
It would seem other ministers tell him what they want to do and he does it. This is less about the government being more efficient and more about the government using "red-tape reduction" as a cover for controversial decisions.
Cutting the provincial cabinet out of the review process for oilsands projects means the final say will rest with the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). "We're taking politics out of the process" makes for a snappy, free-enterprise-sounding slogan but it deliberately misses the point that politics should be part of the process when it comes to important projects such as oilsands schemes. Elected and accountable politicians must have the final say, not unelected regulators.
NDP seemed puzzled as well
As for the government's argument that this will speed up the approval process by 10 months, NDP critic Marlin Schmidt said cutting out cabinet will weaken the approval process and actually lead to more challenges and delays.
Schmidt is still trying to figure out what Bill 22 will mean.
He was left scrambling after the massive piece of legislation was introduced Thursday afternoon. Because of deteriorating relations in the legislative assembly, the government no longer gives the official Opposition advance copies of bills.
Members of the news media were given an advance synopsis and a briefing, not that it helped much having Hunter give the news conference.
Later in the day, Environment Minister Jason Nixon defended Bill 22, saying it was simply making government more efficient as it attempts to improve the economy. He also said programs now run under the Energy Efficiency Alberta will be picked up by Emissions Reduction Alberta.
But what's really happening here is the government is continuing its mission to loosen environmental and regulatory oversight over industrial activities. This should come as no surprise. The UCP clearly telegraphed this in its election campaign last year.
But the government is still trying to camouflage what it's up to.
By having Hunter make the announcement, the government has taken what should be an issue of democratic oversight and made it an issue of cutting red tape. After all, it's much easier to defend cutting red tape than cutting democracy.
Unless, of course, you're the associate minister of cutting red tape. In that case, defending yourself doesn't seem to come so easily.