Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he doesn’t agree with the province’s auditor general that his government was “not compliant” with the law by passing major environmental changes without public consultation.
The government passed Bill 197 on Tuesday, an act that would alter 20 existing laws and make pivotal changes to environmental law. Under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, the government must consult the public about environment-related legislation before passing it.
Auditor general Bonnie Lysyk flagged concerns to the government Friday, saying two portions of Bill 197 were not compliant with the Environmental Bill of Rights, Canada’s National Observer previously reported.
“I’m going to have to respectfully disagree,” Ford said Wednesday, when asked about Lysyk’s finding at his daily COVID-19 briefing.
Ontario NDP environment critic Ian Arthur fired back on Twitter: “You can respectfully disagree with a law all you want. But it's still a law,” he said.
The auditor general is an independent watchdog role, mainly tasked with keeping an eye on provincial finances. Last year, however, the Ford government dissolved the office of the environmental commissioner and moved that role under the auditor general’s purview.
Ford has said Bill 197 is aimed at speeding up key infrastructure projects to help Ontario recover from the economic hit it has taken due to COVID-19.
The legislation means the government will now decide which projects get environmental assessments, rather than reviewing most public sector projects by default. It also streamlines assessments for projects that do need them, and removes a mechanism that allows the public to ask for a full review of a project.
The government is working on more regulations to decide on a list of which projects should get assessments, and to define what the streamlined assessments will look like — the government has said it will still review projects with a moderate or high impact on the environment.
“We will make sure that the legislation respects the fact that we have to keep the environment safe while moving forward with important economic activity,” government house leader Paul Calandra said at Wednesday’s briefing.
Bill 197 also expands the government’s power to override the normal land planning process and potential opposition to projects through ministerial zoning orders (or MZOs).
Ontario's auditor general has said the government was not compliant with the law when it passed Bill 197 without consulting the public on environmental changes. “I’m going to have to respectfully disagree," Premier Doug Ford said in response. #onpoli
The bill was opposed during debate by the NDP, Ontario Liberals and Green Party of Ontario.
The government laid out the changes to environmental assessments in a discussion paper last year and held consultations about its plans. But it did not consult the public on the final version of the rewrite — the government included a measure to exempt that part of the bill from public consultation requirements under the Environmental Bill of Rights — or on the changes to MZOs.
Lysyk previously told National Observer that the government exempting itself from a law retroactively would be “precedent-setting.”
Ford and Calandra didn’t directly address Lysyk’s concerns Wednesday, but Calandra said the bill allows the government to do “continued consultation.”
“This is an important piece of legislation which will modernize the Environmental Assessment Act after some 50 years,” he added.