POLITICS

Environment minister nixes roundtable's information transfer plan

03/26/2013 11:45 EDT | Updated 05/26/2013 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - Environment Minister Peter Kent has pulled the plug on a plan by the controversial National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy to ensure 25 years worth of research gets posted on the Internet.

A spokesman for Kent, however, insisted Tuesday that the minister is committed to ensuring all of the information is made public.

Kent wrote last week to Robert Slater, the roundtable's acting chairman, to deny him permission to archive the group's research and analysis on a website run by the Ottawa-based think-tank Sustainable Prosperity.

Kent also told the roundtable that it would not be allowed to post any more information in the few days that remain before the group shuts down for good —leaving two major essays languishing.

But Rob Taylor, a spokesman for Kent, said in an email that the "full body of work spanning the past 25 years" would be posted on the Library and Archives Canada website.

Taylor said all official publications from the roundtable have been uploaded into three online libraries and distributed to 20 other libraries across the country.

In an interview, Taylor said Kent was merely following the same process that Ottawa followed when it shut down Rights and Democracy, an arm's-length international human rights agency plagued with internal dissent.

But he did not explain why Kent waited until the very last moment to block the roundtable's own plan for setting up a website, nor did he address the issue of the two unpublished essays.

The essays, which Slater provided to The Canadian Press, offer a retrospective analysis of what the advisory body did for Canada's approach to sustainable development, and contain only gentle rebukes of the government's record.

"The most important loss following upon the dissolution of the Round Table is ... the loss of the honest broker known and respected throughout Canada by organizations and individuals deeply involved in the challenges associated with the country’s development," wrote Harvey Mead, who chaired the advisory body from 2002 to 2005.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston, who headed the organization from 1988 to 1990 well before he moved to Rideau Hall, called the roundtable's years "a bold and successful experiment" but expressed no regrets about its demise.

"Our greatest achievement, in my view, was to develop a clear and comprehensive definition of sustainable development and to have legislation enacted that required acts of Parliament to meet the criteria of sustainability," he wrote.

In a separate essay, former chairman Bob Page examined the role of the roundtable, and concluded: "in most cases, those receiving the work appreciated it; in a few cases, they did not."

The government pulled funding from the roundtable a year ago, giving the advisory body until this Friday to wrap up its activities. The cut came without warning and prompted a large outcry from a wide range of researchers and environmentalists.

At the time, ministers offered duelling explanations. Kent said it was no longer necessary to pay for a group that was producing research available elsewhere in the public realm. But Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird suggested the closure was because the government did not want to pay for advice that did not fit with the government's general direction.

The roundtable had warned repeatedly that the federal government would not be able to meet its targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions without dramatic action such as putting a price on carbon — something the Conservatives have railed against.

Over the past few years, the group's research has shown how the federal government could remain globally competitive and be sustainable at the same time by investing in green technology, placing a modest price on carbon and investing heavily in hydro-electricity and renewables.

In an interview, Slater said he does not understand why the government pulled the plug on his plan to publish the material outside of government.

He said he informed Environment Canada long ago of his plan to transfer all the research and analysis to the think-tank. And given that the roundtable was arm's length from — and shut down by — the government, he said the think-tank is the right organization to maintain the roundtable's legacy.

"Our concern is based on insuring the integrity of this intellectual property for the benefit of Canadians," Slater said.

Environmentalists expressed alarm at the news.

"This is another example of the government attempting (to) silence dissenting voices," said John Bennett of the Sierra Club of Canada.

"NRTEE was an arm's-length agency, not a department of the government. He has shut down a plan to make this information easily accessible and bury it."