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On April 1 2013, Scott Vaughan resigned two years before the end of his term as Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. Throughout Vaughan’s tenure, he repeatedly stressed the need for government policies that would increase the government’s capacity to reduce environmental and sustainable development problems. However, the 2012 federal budget ignored Commissioner Vaughan’s recommendations and reduced the government's assessments of possible environmental and development issues.
In May 2008, Scott Vaughan was appointed Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development on behalf of the Auditor General of Canada. In his role as Commissioner, Vaughan’s duties included providing “parliamentarians with objective, independent analysis and recommendations on the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development.”
As Assistant Auditor General, Commissioner Scott Vaughan led auditors who were tasked with conducting performance audits and assessments on “whether federal departments are meeting sustainability objectives and the general overseeing of the environmental petitions processes” – a process which allows Canadians to submit environmental concerns to the government and get a formal response. He provided critical and objective reports on the status of the environment and sustainable development, which was in accordance with the mandate of the position he was assigned to.
In the Fall 2009 report, Vaughan spoke of the importance of high quality science-based environmental information as critical to working towards protecting the environment. While Vaughan acknowledged many of the initiatives in place, he noted that “Environment Canada does not have adequate systems and practices to verify that all facilities required to report their emissions are doing so.”
The following year, in the Fall 2010 report, Vaughan identified “a pattern of unclear and uncoordinated actions” and the “critical gaps in the federal government’s environmental information.” Vaughan’s key findings in the report stated, “the government has not established clear priorities for addressing the need to adapt to a changing climate.”
During Vaughan’s appointment and after the previous reports highlighting the need for improved environmental information, the Harper government released the 2012 federal budget. Included in the omnibus budget bill was the forced cancellation of close to 3,000 environmental assessments into developmental projects with potential for environmental damage. Accordingly, in Vaughan’s Spring 2012 report, he stressed the impact and shortfall in how the “budget for assessing the environmental and human risks of sites has shrunk by more than 60 percent” and with that “the capacity to identify new risks has dwindled.”
Vaughan’s critique of the federal budget's impact on the state of environmental protection did not go unnoticed to Canadians and the Minister of Environment Peter Kent. Kent went on to defend the government’s budget choices and assure that policy was actually reinforcing environmental protection. In a Ministerial Statement, Kent attempted to “clarify recent reports on changes to the environmental assessment act, which have given the impression that Canada's environmental protection regime is now somehow weakened.”
In an interview with Postmedia News, Vaughan said that the lines of communication with the government were weakened, specifically with Environment Minister Peter Kent. Green Party Elizabeth May and NDP Environment Critic Megan Leslie are both reported to have said that Vaughan is “a thorn in the side of the Harper government because he objectively reported empirical evidence of what was happening to Canada’s environment on a range of issues.” Additionally, May proclaimed Conservative MPs “bullied” Vaughan as a witness rather than accepting his recommendations, findings and reports.
While Vaughan's reports were critical of certain government policy choices, they were fact-based, gave proper acknowledgment when the government made decisions deemed favorable to the protection of the environment, and in accordance with his mandate to provide policy recommendations. Vaughan has made no public statement connecting his resignation with the lack of response to his reports or stonewalling on environmental questions.
After his resignation on April 1, 2013, Vaughan is moving on to become the president and CEO the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a think tank that contributes to sustainable development by advancing policy recommendations.
- May 2008: Scott Vaughan is appointed as federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.
- November 2009: Vaughan releases a report highlighting the importance of ensuring quality information is used to design, implement, and monitor programs that can deliver measurable benefits to environmental quality.
- December 2010: Vaughan releases a report highlighting critical gaps in the government’s coordination of gathering information needed for sound environmental policies.
- March 2012: The 2012 federal budget legislation cancels nearly 3,000 environmental screenings of projects, including many which involve fossil fuel energy projects.
- May 2012: Vaughan releases a report critical of the government’s reduced ability to assess environmental and health risks because of funding cuts.
- August 2012: Minister of Environment, Peter Kent releases public statement justifying the elimination of screenings to projects with potential environmental risk.
- April 1, 2013: Scott Vaughan steps down two years before his term ends to take up the position of President and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a Winnipeg based public policy think-tank.
Role or Position
Scott Vaughan was Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development from 2008 to 2013. In this position, he worked on behalf of the Auditor General of Canada to audit federal government operations, provide independent and objective information and recommendations on the government’s efforts to protect the environment and sustainable development.
Implications and Consequences
- Free Speech & Democracy: Governments compromise the willingness of individuals to speak up in the public’s interest and offer objective information for fear that they will be discredited or simply not listened to.
- Knowledge: By diminishing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and its environmental impact screening, the government went against the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development’s recommendations for strengthened environmental data. Ignoring the recommendations of independent agencies tasked with providing objective advice undermines the ability to make well-informed and facts-based policy decisions.
- Democracy & Transparency: The role of the Auditor General of Canada is to support increased accountability by conducting independent and objective audits of the federal government’s actions. A government that respects democracy honours the advice provided by experts such as Scott Vaughan. The difficulty Vaughan has had in accessing information necessary to fulfill his mandate echoes similar stonewalling and withholding of information that Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has faced.
Date published: 20 March 2013
Photo from Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press