The Commons: Back to the future

When it comes to climate change, John Baird is not about to make promises he can't keep. Or keep promises he once made.

The Scene. Michael Ignatieff stood with a slight smile. His side cheered, government members jeered.

“Welcome back!” chirped one.

Then to the question, which was, lo and behold, something to do with the environment and the need for urgent action against potential ruin.

“Mr. Speaker, for four years, the government promised a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Mr. Ignatieff reported. “Today, the Environment Minister has once again postponed the announcement of any action until the end of 2010. We’re three weeks from Copenhagen. How can we protect the environment if the government takes no position?”

This was some riddle.

Up to answer was John Baird, an environment minister in a previous life.

“Mr. Speaker, this government is working constructively with our partners around the world to ensure that we tackle global warming and the challenge of climate change,” Mr. Baird declared. “What we will not do is make promises that we cannot keep.”

It is a testament to Mr. Baird’s abilities as a public performer that he did not here descend into giggles.

We dissolve here into ancient history.

“Canadians want action, they want it now and our government is delivering. We are serving notice that beginning today, industry will need to make real reductions,” Mr. Baird once said. ”In as little as three years, greenhouse gases could be going down, instead of up. After years of inaction, Canada now has one of the most aggressive plans to tackle greenhouse gases and air pollution in the world.”

This is, as historians of the written word surely know, what Mr. Baird said two and a half years ago, in a press release announcing his government’s second plan to deal appropriately with the environment. Mr. Baird was subsequently replaced by Jim Prentice and it is Mr. Prentice who now says Canada will wait until not only the United States has settled on a plan, but, indeed, much of the globe has agreed on an approach, before committing to much of anything. Late 2010 is the latest target.

In fairness, while Mr. Baird called his plan “Turning the Corner,” he did not specify precisely how wide a corner we were apparently in the midst of navigating.

Mr. Ignatieff gave it another go. “Mr. Speaker, the government has been giving that reply for nearly four years,” he lamented. “Three plans, three ministers, no action. The government keeps promising Canadians this plan, but the environment minister reports today that it is going to put off all publication of regulations until the end of 2010. The conference in Copenhagen is three weeks away. How are Canadians supposed to believe that the government is going to defend their interest when they have no plan whatsoever?”

There was much grumbling from the government side, including one shouted reference to a carbon tax.

Mr. Baird appealed on Mr. Prentice’s behalf. “We have seen the Minister of the Environment come forward with initiatives to work with the United States with respect to automobiles, with respect to aviation emissions,” he said.

“Where’s the plan?” begged a Liberal.

“This government,” Mr. Baird continued, “is committed to working with the Obama administration to get the job done that never happened in 13 long years when the Liberal Party was in power.”

In fairness, the previous Liberal government signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, so in a sense, their specific inaction on this file totalled something like eight years. And, by that count, the current Conservative government is at least half as apathetic. Not that the current Liberal opposition has been particularly keen over the past year to press too forcefully for change, apparently fearful that doing so might remind everyone of last fall’s election. (“Where have you gone Stephane Dion?/An increasingly disinterested capital turns its eyes to you/Woo woo woo/Woo woo woo.”)

“Mr. Speaker, I would remind the minister that the government has been in office for four long years. It cannot keep blaming other people,” Ignatieff lectured, swiping his left hand dismissively at Mr. Baird. “It talks about leadership. I will tell the House what leadership looks like.”

Government members laughed derisively. Because, of course, this was all more or less a joke.

“China has invested $250 billion in green tech,” Mr. Ignateff continued. “The United States is investing six times per capita what we are doing. It is one thing not to lead but it is another thing to not even follow. Why has Canada fallen so far behind?”

Mr. Baird stood one more time and registered his own carbon emissions for the official record. The smog in Ottawa grew a little bit thicker.

The Stats. The environment and ethics, seven questions each. Nuclear energy, five questions. Poverty, four questions. H1N1, pensions, shipyards, agriculture, Afghanistan and employment, two questions each. Arts funding, trade, education and Aboriginals, one question each.

John Baird, eight answers. Lisa Raitt and Peter Kent, four answers each. Christian Paradis and Diane Finley, three answers each. Leona Aglukkaq, Mike Lake, James Moore, Rona Ambrose and Gerry Ritz, two answers each. Jay Hill, Peter MacKay, Gerald Keddy, Gary Goodyear and Steven Fletcher, one answer each.