The Commons: Yelling with purpose

The opposition takes on Canada’s oil drilling regulations. Would we be ready for an oil spill?

by Aaron Wherry

The Scene. It was a full 25 questions today before anyone referred to Helena Guergis, before any of Pat Martin or John Baird or, sometime later, Marlene Jennings got involved. And then, yes, there was a reference, from the aforementioned Mr. Martin, to crucifixion. But that there had been a full 25 questions before we came to this point, surely counts for something.

This was indeed, in various small ways, a remarkable day. Daniel Paille and Jim Flaherty entertainingly sparred over securities regulation. Mr. Flaherty and John McCallum very nearly yelled each other hoarse over taxation policy. There were two questions about the potential for train traffic through downtown Toronto.

That it all began with David McGuinty, the booming Liberal backbencher, might not have particularly bode well. But then he seemed to have a question of some relevance.

He wanted specifically to know about the nation’s oil drilling regulations and whether we were sufficiently prepared to deal with the sort of disaster now making a mess of the Gulf of Mexico. For whatever reason, the Prime Minister didn’t feel like taking this one, so he passed to Environment Minister Jim Prentice. Mr. Prentice stood and assured Mr. McGuinty that everything was quite all right. Mr. McGuinty was unconvinced.

“Mr. Speaker, in December offshore drilling regulations were deliberately weakened to allow oil companies to set their own environmental protection goals and safety standards,” he shot back.

The Conservative side did not like this much and groaned.

“In contrast to the United States, using a strict and prescriptive approach for every offshore platform, these Conservatives do not even require safety valves and blow-up preventers,” Mr. McGuinty continued. “What this really means is that the Conservatives are asking industry to put the public interest ahead of their self-interest and shareholder profits. Will the government reinstate tough regulations that hold oil companies to the highest standards or not?”

Mr. Prentice then passed to Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, who similarly attempted reassurance. “Mr. Speaker, nothing is further from the truth. Canadian regulations require companies to prove they can operate safely in specific situations using the most advanced technology tailored to their circumstances,” he said. “We have stringent regulations that put the onus on industry to prove to regulators that they can protect their workers, the public and the environment. No drilling will proceed unless the government is convinced. Canadians expect nothing less.”

Larry Bagnell, the Liberal for Yukon, expected more. “Mr. Speaker, instead of reading his notes why did the minister not explain why the government weakened the requirements?” he sniped.

The Conservatives then howled as Mr. Bagnell proceeded to read from his own notes. And then Mr. Paradis mocked Mr. Bagnell for reading his notes instead of listening. And then the Liberals mocked Mr. Paradis for, once more, turning to his script.

The day did not then, though, spin out of control. Liberal Joyce Murray asked about a moratorium on oil tanker traffic off the B.C. coast. Liberal Gerry Byrne asked about the possibility of disaster and the government’s ability to respond. And then, after an interlude to debate the feasibility of a national securities regulator, Jack Layton picked up the oil inquiry with a series of questions about what the Prime Minister had done since the Gulf of Mexico spill to ensure Canada was sufficiently safeguarded.

Asked in French, the Prime Minister began his response en francais, but then switched to English, apparently to swing back in the opposition’s general direction.

“Quite frankly,” he testified, “I am shocked to hear some of the opposition members suggesting we would copy American regulations.”

Jack Layton was now compelled to yell back, his voice even cracking in the ensuing excitement. “Let us look at the National Energy Board for a minute,” he offered, waving his right hand all about. “This is an industry-friendly body that very recently gave in to pressure from the big oil companies to relax the regulations, to loosen the regulations on drilling in the Beaufort Sea. So that essentially the companies now get to decide what technologies they use, what systems they bring forward, what plans that they have. There is no regulation of any serious nature left. Can the Prime Minister explain to Canadians what the Conservatives are going to toughen up the rules, not loosen them?”

Now over to Mr. Harper, raising his voice and jabbing his finger and attempting to approximate besmirchment. “Mr. Speaker, once again, I am fascinated that a series of disgraceful events in the United States are used as a platform to attack a Canadian regulator,” he moaned. “A Canadian regulator which has an excellent record. A Canadian regulator which responds to these situations, which will continue to improve the situation here in Canada. We are very proud of the job that our regulator and that this country is doing. We have nothing to learn from the United States.”

Now Mr. Layton was waving both hands and demanding to know how we could know that a project off the coast of Newfoundland was sufficiently safe and then Mr. Harper was lamenting all of these attacks on Canada’s good name.

And indeed there was great sound and fury, but at least the noise seemed directed in someway. At least we were yelling about something.

The Stats. The oil industry, eight questions. Securities regulation, crime and Helena Guergis, four questions each. Pensions, taxation, abortion, the Supreme Court, mortgage fraud, forestry, Internet access and transport, two questions each. Tourism, product safety and space exploration, one question each.

John Baird, six answers. Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty, five answers each. Tony Clement, Vic Toews and Rob Nicholson, four answers each. Christian Paradis, three answers. Jim Prentice, Bev Oda and Denis Lebel, two answers each. James Moore and Leona Aglukkaq, one answer each.

The Commons: Yelling with purpose

  1. If the questions were well researched and there was enough time to answer then perhaps we would get somewhere. Micheal Chong has offered some ideas for Changing QP including increasing questions and answers to 90 seconds. I think that would help.
    The other was having the PM answer all questions once a week. What a breath of fresh air that would be. However, unless the opposition are prepared to ask substantive question Harper or any PM would never agree.

    • It's not just the opposition – the government side fails to ask substantive questions either. Like this gem from last Thursday:

      ***Mr. Stephen Woodworth (Kitchener Centre, CPC):
      Mr. Speaker, yesterday, the President of the Treasury Board told Canadians that our Conservative government will require lobbyists to tell Canadians about their meetings with parliamentarians. However, Liberals quickly backed away from this proposal, leaving Canadians wondering what the Liberals have to hide.

      Our government created tough lobbying rules through the Federal Accountability Act, but the Liberals fought those changes at every step. Can the President of the Treasury Board please tell the House why the Liberal Party is once again opposing greater transparency for Canadians?

      • Matlock….I don't really see the problem. This was a members' statement posed as a question.

        Is it not a fact that the government is proposing to toughen up the rules on Lobbying so that all MPs, Senators, cabinet ministers and the leader of the opposition must record which lobbyist they met?

        Is it not a fact that in a press conference Iffy said he had no problem opening his appointment book and then quickly backed down and said the new changes go too far.

        It is true the Liberals fought the Accountability Act all the way and it was with the support of the NDP that it got through.

        Tell me again. What was wrong with the members' statement?

        • Well, it was given during Oral Questions, not Statements by Members – make statements during statements, ask questions during questions. Furthermore, if I were to agree with your logic, we could say that all opposition questions are just statements by members as well, with a question tacked on the end.

          Listen, I'm in agreement with you on Michael Chong's proposal, it could do wonders for QP. But when you try and suggest this as a problem solely created by the opposition and solely for them to own up to, I'm going to do the fair and balanced thing and provide a counterexample.

          • Matlock…..We are in agreement. I want the government to answer the question. I want the question to be clear, concise and not open ended. There is enough blame to go around.

    • Hon. Stockwell Day (President of the Treasury Board and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, CPC):
      Mr. Speaker, it is a known fact that former Liberal ministers would meet regularly with secret Liberal lobbyists. Now that the Liberals are no longer in government, those secret meetings with lobbyists still continue. Mr. Speaker, as a matter of fact, they continue behind those curtains just beyond your thoughtful, watchful eyes. They continue in the office of the Leader of the Opposition.

      The Liberals think Canadians do not have a right to know. We think Canadians have a right to know. We would like to know what is going on behind those curtains, what is going on behind the doors of the opposition leader's office that they do not want Canadians to know about.***

      Asking ministers to speculate on the opposition's opinion is not substantive debate either.

  2. Except the Ocean is not provincial jurisdiction, so once that oil leaks…

  3. So because effective and well-designed oversight can't eliminate 100% of risk, we shouldn't bother to strive for it?

    Is anybody here at all arguing that all drilling has to stop?

    • TJCook…..I do not disagree that we should strive to make sure our regulations are the best they can be. However there is a balance that needs to be maintained so that we do not shut down the industry and may it prohibitive to drill. Yelling at the government and accusing them of all manner of thing is disingenuous and dare I say fear mongering.

      The opposition needs to stop smearing the agency and simply put forward their question as to where they see specific weaknesses in the process. Blanket statements like the NEB is pro business does not do anything for the discussion.

      Unfortunately that would require the opposition parties to investigate and learn a little about the industry and that probably is way to much trouble for them.

      • Please be specific: what has the opposition said that's disingenuous?

        And what do they have yet to learn that would cause them to understand the government's position?

      • Well, speaking of blanket statements that don't add anything to the discussion:

        Last week in question period Harper answered some question about the Gulf blow out with the reply that he would not tolerate that in Canada. Exactly what is his lack of tolerance going to accomplish? He might as well sit in the Bay of Fundy and declare he won't tolerate the tide coming in. It was the stupidest thing I've heard from Harper. Even more ridiculous than saying there wasn't going to be a recession in Canada.

        • Yes, I saw that as well and was boggled.

          A lot of fluff with a great deal of huff-n-puff. We deserve better.

  4. This is definitely a case where government regulation of industry would be a good thing. Get on it, Harper.

  5. "Main street, inclusive, successful: that's today's Conservative Party of Canada."

    Jeez Tenycke, you're really going downhill. You sound like Florence Henderson flogging Crisco.

  6. Just like liberals couldn't pick wheat or barley out of a food grains line-up, they also know absolutely nothing about the oil industry, they are as ignorant as the day is long, and proud of it.

    • How many politicians would have even slight knowledge of any of these topics? I didn't see Ms. Paradis correcting him, and that's her department. Don't pretend that being Conservative somehow makes a person more 'of the people'. Mr. Harper is an economist for crying out loud.

  7. I'm not sure you fully understand the difference between regulation (jurisdiction of the provinces, and Feds for territorial lands) – NEB in Beaufort or AEUB in Alberta -and environmental assessments of large projects. The latter is a much broader review.

    Since the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico appears to have occured during the drilling of the well (a gas kick in combination with inadequate drilling mud it seems), the fact that a relief well was not required is irrelevant – because it would have only been started once the original well was completed. So, this extrapolation to what is happening in Canada regarding Arctic drilling is not particularly applicable.

    (Btw – I have nothing against linking to a specific blog directly related to the topic. that adds something of value. It's a general link to your blogsite that is not kosher. )

    • Oops – force of habit. AEUB has now reverted back to ERCB.

  8. Nope – drilling is under federal jurisdiction, but jointly regulated by way of federally delegated authority under the CNLOPB off the coast of Newfoundland and its Nova Scotia equivalent of the coast of Nova Scotia I forget the acronym). On the West Coast, and up North, it's purely federal. Presumably that would change if BC decided it wanted to drill and enter into some similar arrangement as on the East Coast.

    • Thanks for clarifying the jurisdictional issue, Richard.

  9. That was my understand as well – they have been mandatory for dry land rigs for some time – although the Conservatives tend to alter safety regs with an abandon that can easily be classed as wild and crazy.

    If these things are in place – the next question is will they work – it seems they were also in place in the Gulf of Mexico – in fact are still in place…. not working, but definitely there.

  10. I doubt Happy Jack would yell at Danny Williams like that, no, that would take away votes. It doesn't matter how loud you yell,if what you are saying means nothing to 'most' folks.

  11. I agree, let the visiting professor and Happy Jack keep blabbing

  12. Did Harper change the donation rules? I always thought it was Chretien. Can anyone inform me? Please and thank you.

    • Yes, I thought it was the Chretien government that did that. Harper tried to modify things by cutting off the government (x dollars per vote formula) funding of political parties, but you may recall that he ran into a bit of flak for that and beat a strategic retreat.

  13. "Of course the Conservatives are pro-oil. Their voter base is in the West. "

    This is a naive understanding of why political parties do what they do (and one that deliberately ignores Newfoundland's oil interests in Liberal policy).

    Parties do not serve their base, they serve swing voters. Why? Because party leaders are king and party leaders care primarily about winning more seats, not winning 80%+ in Crowfoot. This, incidentally, is also why giving MPs more power would increase the ideological divide between the parties (as we can see in the US). This is also why there is really no difference between present Tory policy, and the Liberal policies that prevailed in the 90s. In both cases the oil-rich parts of Canada were politically irrelevant (because they are unwinnable for Liberals and unloseable for Tories).

  14. Let's not be naive. All political parties are "pro-oil" when they are on the govt side of the House. They all respect the govt revenues that oil generates, with the exception of Pierre Trudeau.

    The NDP govts of SK & MB have no qualms about courting oil companies to explore and drill in their provinces.

    The Liberals only feign environmentalism to court voters. The Liberals never believe what they say themselves.

  15. ALL the yelling in the background in parliament SHOULD BE STOPPED. What is all that crap. WHO NEEDS IT? It's really barbaric and stupid at the very least. MAKE IT STOP NOW!!

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