Biodiversity Act passes at Province House, regulations still to come
Debate included pointed criticism among the 2 opposition parties
MLAs passed Nova Scotia's beleaguered Biodiversity Act late Tuesday night after more than three hours of debate that included pointed criticism from the opposition parties and the lands and forestry minister pushing back against the suggestion that not enough consultation went into drafting the bill.
As he closed debate, Lands and Forestry Minister Chuck Porter talked at length about suggestions by Progressive Conservative MLAs throughout the legislative process that the government didn't hold enough meetings or consult with enough people.
Porter then tabled documents outlining the meetings held on the bill from 2019 to 2021 and listing a litany of environmental groups, forestry and agriculture industry groups and companies, First Nations organizations and municipal representatives who participated in the meetings.
He also included details about a meeting one Tory MLA had with staff at his department about the bill and noted that several of the party's MLAs attended public meetings on the legislation.
"You don't have to like it. We don't have to like the debate in this house, we don't have to agree," said Porter.
"But we stand in our place and we speak to the facts as they are known. If the party didn't know across the way what the facts were, perhaps they should have done the research to find out, Mr. Speaker. It was readily made available to them."
Earlier in the debate, Tory MLAs continued to voice concern that the bill remains unclear about some of its intentions and could still turn into an overreach by government to control how people use their land.
"There are too many interpretations of the wording of this bill," said Tory forestry critic Tory Rushton, who said the government failed to do the necessary education about the bill to address people's concerns.
'There wasn't consultation,' says Tory leader
His party leader, Tim Houston, said the number of people who have expressed concerns about not being heard on the legislation speaks to the government's efforts to listen.
"If it's only the government that feels there was proper consultation, then there wasn't consultation."
But Porter said the proof of the government's willingness to listen came in the form of changes it made, removing elements related to enforcement, emergency orders and applying it only to Crown land as a means of assuaging concerns they were hearing from some landowners.
"What was being put out there constantly was not at all what the intention was," he said in an interview.
"This is a foundation, this a beginning. It's measured in three years and then in five years."
Regulations still to come
Porter said already his department is hearing from private landowners who voluntarily want to be a part of the process for establishing biodiversity management zones and he believes that interest will increase.
But members of the NDP, who voted in favour of the bill because they said some legislation to protect biodiversity is better than no legislation, lamented what could have been.
The changes Rankin announced to the bill came in the face of a highly co-ordinated lobby effort bankrolled by industry lobbyists that attempted to pit landowners and environmentalists against each other.
NDP forestry critic Lisa Roberts noted it was left to landowners, environmentalists and others who supported the bill in its original form to find a way to push back against the lobby effort.
Roberts said the job of defending the government's legislation in the face of misleading information should not have fallen to supporters of the bill.
"Who has the resources to counter that sort of misinformation? The government does."
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the changes the Liberals made to the bill, reducing it from 19 pages to seven, robbed it of its promise.
"It is less like the bill received amendment and more like the bill received amputation," he said.
Burrill accused the Tories of buying into the lobby effort talking points, posturing for the sake of politics and being outdated and out of touch with the realities of climate change and the requirements to respond.
Houston, meanwhile, shot back that his party was the only one willing to stand up for rural landowners and questioned the relevance of the NDP.
Although the bill has passed, it will not come into force until regulations are developed. Porter has pledged an extensive public consultation process will happen before the regulations are formalized.