The Harper government axed its advisory body on environment and the economy in last year's budget. It now stands accused of trying to bury its research, too.
In an 11th-hour directive, Environment Minister Peter Kent blocked an attempt by the National Roundtable on the Economy and Environment to transfer its research, including recent reports that challenged the government's approach to climate change, to an Ottawa-based think-tank. Instead, Environment Canada will take control of the 25 years of research reports, and has promised to keep them publicly available.
But a former chairman of the roundtable, Bob Page, worries the government is interested in limiting debate on crucial environmental issues such as climate change.
"In my view, it's part of a gut reaction [of the Harper government] against information being out there, being used, stirring up interest in environmental action, which they'd like to keep to a minimum," Dr. Page, a professor at the University of Calgary's business school, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
"I was disappointed … This is part of a wide concern in the government to try to control the flow of information to the public in some of these areas, and certainly on things like carbon pricing, that we argued for."
The advisory roundtable was launched by former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, and current Governor-General David Johnston was its founding chair. Its last board included prominent Conservatives, including former MP Bob Mills, former Ontario cabinet minister Diane Cunningham and Mark Parent, onetime environment minister in Nova Scotia.
The federally appointed roundtable will close its doors this weekend, a year after the Conservative government announced it would no longer provide funding. The decision to close the advisory body came after it issued several climate reports that concluded Ottawa must take more aggressive action if it is going to hit its target of a 17-per-cent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2020.
The roundtable's board had intended to transfer its website – with links to all its reports and research – to Sustainable Prosperity, a national research network based at the University of Ottawa. But Mr. Kent informed it last Friday to drop that plan, and transfer all material to his department.
Bob Slater, the roundtable's acting chair, said Tuesday the last-minute decision from Mr. Kent was somewhat surprising because Environment Canada had been kept informed of the transfer plan as it developed. But he said the minister committed to making the research available "in accordance with government of Canada information management and publications policies."
A spokesman for Mr. Kent said the research will remain widely available.
"Canadians will have access to the NRTEE's full body of work spanning across the past 25 years on the Library and Archives Canada website," Mr. Kent's communication director, Rob Taylor, said in an e-mail. He noted the work has been distributed widely across the country. However, Dr. Page said the publicly available documents are not properly indexed and are difficult to use for research. On the roundtable's website, the information was indexed and easily searchable.
Mark Winfield, a professor of environmental studies at York University, said failure by Environment Canada to make the material easily accessible would amount to "the final act of intellectual vandalism" toward the roundtable.
Dr. Winfield said the decision to close the advisory group is consistent with the Harper government's actions to reduce the clout of the Parliamentary Budget Office and to close the Experimental Lakes Area environmental research centre. "It's another example of the government's unwillingness to accept evidence-based advice that is inconsistent with their policy," he said.