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The Problem With High Turnover in Canada's Dept. of the Environment

09/02/2014 05:12 EDT | Updated 11/02/2014 05:59 EST
Jordan Siemens via Getty Images

Turnover in a stock portfolio is generally regarded as a good thing -- especially for the broker and sometimes for the investor. Turnovers in a continental breakfast can be quite tasty while offering the sugar kick sometimes required when starting your day. Other turnovers can be of a more dubious nature.

Frequent turnover at the head of a Department in the Public Service, sometimes referred to as Canada's Permanent Government, is almost never a good sign. It is often indicative of some serious friction at the highest level which almost inevitably reverberates throughout the department.

It is therefore concerning but not surprising that Michael Martin is just the latest Deputy Minister at the Department of the Environment. He is the sixth appointment in the last nine years and was quietly ushered into his new position in late June and well after the scrutinizing eyes of Parliament had left for the summer. DMs, generally speaking, are well-remunerated and well regarded senior civil servants who have distinguished themselves in some previous portfolio.

Mr. Martin appears to have an exceptional resume and would, in normal circumstances, be regarded as an admirable appointment. Unfortunately, when you are the sixth such appointment in nine years, questions begin to arise. Mr. Martin's predecessors are civil servants equally as able and distinguished as he is, but for reasons personal to them, have found their way out the door with undue haste after relatively short stays at Environment Canada. Deputy Ministers offer stability and institutional memory to a Department. They eventually have to move on or retire, but when it happens so often, one begins to wonder why.

It is fair to say that Environment Canada has not been blessed with a lot of love and attention from the Prime Minister's Office. Former Minister Jim Prentice found greener pastures outside of politics until very recently. Former Minister John Baird was brought in to kill Kyoto, subsequently stuffing his trophy case with Fossil of the Year awards from various environmental groups. Former Minister Peter Kent and the incumbent are tasked with keeping environmental issues on the back pages -- or better still out of the news, period.

It is clear that the PMO would prefer that the portfolio disappear altogether -- or better still be folded into the Department of Natural Resources. The latter would be consistent with the PM's philosophy that the environment is only useful in so far as there are resources to extract from it. The thought that our environment has some intrinsic value in and of itself is an anathema to the PMO's boys in short pants.

In this context it is not hard to see why so many capable people leave for other opportunities before their frustration boils over. No love from the PMO, weak or distracted ministers, and a flat lined budget tends to project a message which able people will not tolerate. One would hope that Mr. Martin's tenure is longer and more fruitful than that of his five predecessors.

In an effort to be helpful and constructive, but at the risk of being presumptuous may I take the liberty of suggesting that the following appear on his agenda sooner rather than later?

1- An admission that the Government of Canada will not reach its 2020 Copenhagen targets.

2- Real negotiations on GHG reductions with the oil and gas industry.

3- A robust infrastructure program fully funded to assist municipalities and others with adjustments to the reality of climate change.

4- Restoration and enhancement of Environment Canada and Parks Canada budgets from the brutality of the last nine years.

5- Immediate meeting with U.S. counterparts to address water quality and quantity in the Great Lakes and other shared water basins.

Mr. Martin, if your political masters allow you accomplish even a fraction of the above, your tenure will be a resounding success. Godspeed, sir.

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