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Ford government attacks red tape in new bill, but environmentalists say it goes too far

The Ford government's first new legislation after a long summer break is aimed at reducing red tape and modernizing regulations, but there are worries that some of the proposed changes could weaken environmental protections.

Proposed changes will save businesses $52M, provincial government says

Premier Doug Ford's government introduced the new bill on Monday, its first day back at the Legislature this fall. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

The Ford government's first new legislation after a long summer break is aimed at reducing red tape and modernizing regulations, but there are worries that some of the proposed changes could weaken environmental protections.

The bill, called the Better for People, Smarter for Business Act, was introduced on Monday at Queen's Park.

If passed, the legislation would result in regulatory changes across a wide variety of areas, including the environment, agriculture, food safety, alcohol, mining, post-secondary education, insurance, and many others.

"All too often, regulations make things harder than they should be," said Prabmeet Sarkaria, associate minister for Small Business and Red Tape Reduction, in a news release.

"Decades of government regulation have resulted in rules that are duplicative, outdated or unclear, causing businesses to spend time and money complying with rules that simply could be better," he also said.

But some environmentalists are worried about changes in the bill that would remove provisions around environmental protection.

"It's not terribly promising," said Keith Brooks, a program manager at the advocacy group Environmental Defence.

'Walking the talk'

The Progressive Conservative government points to existing regulations around food banks as evidence of the province's excessive rules.

Under existing laws, food banks and soup kitchens are subject to the same regulations as restaurants, a set of rules the PCs call "confusing and convoluted." They are proposing new regulations for those largely volunteer organizations, allowing them to focus more on feeding people in need.

In another proposed change, the PCs would eliminate a law forbidding dogs on patios, and instead allow individual businesses to decide whether or not to allow customers to bring their pets.

Other changes in the 92-page omnibus bill would streamline commercial truck inspections, allow farmers to more easily obtain insurance, and standardize recycling practices across all Ontario municipalities.

Julie Kwiecinski, director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the bill "shows that the Ontario government is walking the talk on red tape reduction."

She pointed to a change that will exempt hairdressers and barbers from collecting clients' personal information and removing a requirement to have two sinks as particularly smart proposals.

The Tories estimate the changes will save businesses some $52 million. The government says its sustained attack on red tape adds up to $338 million in savings since it took office in June 2018.

'Problematic' environmental implications

The new legislation will also repeal certain sections of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA), including rules around collecting penalties from companies that contravene the act.

In some instances, companies found in violation of the EPA may be subject to a lower penalty, capped to a maximum of $200,000. Those penalties currently reach up to $100,000 per day in some cases.

Other provisions in the existing act are being repealed, including some in the EPA that govern emissions from motor vehicles. 

Keith Brooks, programs director at Environmental Defence, is disappointed in what he describes as a lack of consultation before the legislation was introduced. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Brooks said environmental groups were still parsing the dense language and complex changes proposed in the new legislation. Some groups said they expect to discover more damaging changes in the coming days.

The Tories, meanwhile, say the new legislation will in fact strengthen environmental protections, and that it "is not lowering any penalties."

Ministry of Environment spokesperson Chelsea Dolan noted that penalties against offenders could become more severe in some instances. When it comes to monitoring vehicle emissions, she said the government is actually increasing enforcement, but shifting that responsibility to the Ministry of Transportation.

The government says that will allow commercial truck drivers to have their safety and emissions testing done at the same time.

"The Ministry of Transportation also has many more enforcement officers on the road than the Ministry of Environment," Dolan added.

While Brooks said the bill appears "problematic" and potentially damaging to environmental protection, he also took issue with a lack of communication before the legislation was rolled out.

"What we didn't see was any consultation with the environmental sector," he said, adding that the Ford government has routinely snuck major changes in sweeping omnibus bills during its time in office.

The legislation will need to pass further readings at the Ontario legislature before it becomes law.

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