09/19/2012 09:14 EDT | Updated 11/19/2012 05:12 EST

Ontario's Environment: Liberals Failing On Public Involvement, Watchdog Says

TORONTO - The Liberal government is ignoring the public's right to be involved in the development of policies to protect the environment, Ontario's environmental watchdog said Wednesday.

"It astounds me to report on the degree of disregard and contempt that is shown to statutory requirements of the Environmental Bill of Rights," Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller said as he released part one of his annual report, "Losing Touch."

"Various ministries persist in hiding environmentally significant decisions from public scrutiny and comment in open defiance of the clear intent of the statute."

Miller was not pleased with the way several ministries deliberately stonewalled people who requested information they were entitled to have about initiatives that impact the environment.

"Perhaps it is understandable that the ministries are no longer referred to as the civil service because there is nothing civil about the way citizens are often treated when they exercise their legislated right to file a request for investigation or review," he said.

"Making citizen applicants wait 252 days for an answer that the legislature has indicated must be provided in 60 days is not civil behaviour."

Several ministries are ignoring the law and developing far-reaching plans, policies and programs without properly notifying or consulting the public, added Miller, who singled out the Ministry of Natural Resources as a "chronic" offender.

"The most egregious example is MNR’s attempt to shield the Provincial Wildlife Population Monitoring Program from public review," he said.

"The ministry’s behaviour is all the more offensive because the plan itself is inadequate in meeting the requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act and the Crown Forest Sustainability Act."

Natural Resources Minister Michael Gravelle said his office posted over 300 different items on the environmental registry in the past year to get public comment.

"We take our obligations under the environmental Bill of Rights very, very seriously," said Gravelle.

"I want to have an opportunity to look more closely at Commissioner Miller’s report."

The opposition parties said hiding information is typical of the Liberals, and pointed to their current fight to get the government to release the cost of their decisions to cancel electrical generating stations in Oakville and Mississauga.

"I think he was being generous when he called it Losing Touch. I would have called it Lost Touch," said Progressive Conservative critic Michael Harris.

"This government continues to keep Ontarians in the dark on the costs and benefits of legislation, and they don’t want people to know the negative aspects of some of these things."

The New Democrats called Miller's report "another scathing indictment" of the Liberal government.

"I think the commissioner has highlighted an emerging trend that we have seen for some time," said NDP critic Jonah Schein.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the Liberals were deliberately undermining the environmental Bill of Rights.

"This lack of transparency and accountability in my mind is dangerous," said Schreiner.

Miller was also highly critical of the Ministry of Energy for failing to post a full proposal notice on the Environmental Registry when it announced a review of its controversial Feed-In-Tariff program for green energy projects.

The commissioner concluded that members of the public service are ignoring their responsibility to support and implement the will of the Legislative Assembly.

"It is deliberate and documented. This is not something casual and accidental," he said.

The commissioner also lashed out at the government for burying changes to dozens of laws inside the budget bill, which he has no power to examine.

"When they start amending 69 pieces of legislation, many of them amendments to environmental laws that clearly have nothing to do with money at all, I think people should be concerned," said Miller.

"We didn’t expect to have that kind of change hidden deep within a budget bill in a controversial year when there was a $15-billion deficit and everyone was focused on the money."

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