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Peter Kent: Environment Minister, Though You Wouldn’t Know It From How He Talks

The Thornhill MP may be toeing the Tory line of silence, but he's hardly doing himself—or us—any favours in the process.

Poor Peter Kent. Those years reading news scripts on Global TV must now seem like the best years of his life. Sadly, the Honourable Minister of the Environment and MP for Thornhill is quickly descending to the level of a punchline.

The prime minister’s brain trust has put a watcher on Kent. Melissa Lantsman is who the Tories send in when ministers need, let’s say, a lot of hand-holding. Her last assignment was foreign minister Lawrence Cannon, a man whose ignorance of even the most basic foreign policy issues was jaw-dropping. Lantsman now handles Peter Kent—and what a job that must be. There are no press conferences at all. Presumably, Kent can’t be trusted to stick to the talking points. Or maybe he hasn’t got the capacity to memorize them. Or, much more likely, Kent has such a tenuous grasp on the issues that he can’t be trusted to speak publicly on the environment without a complete script, and might dissolve into worthless goo if a reporter asked a tough question.

We’ve seen that in the House of Commons. Kent was recently asked by Liberal MP Justin Trudeau to define ozone (hit play on the above video to see that moment). Trudeau took a bit of a risk. A typical high school chemistry student knows ozone is a molecule with three oxygen atoms. And anyone who follows air pollution issues knows that, too.

Kent could have made mockery of Trudeau, but, instead, he picked up a talking point and kept reading. He didn’t know. He could have dodged the whole chemistry thing and said ozone is a gas that, at ground level, is a major component of air pollution, and in the upper atmosphere protects the earth from solar radiation. But he didn’t.

Even before this humiliating moment, Kent had been on the run from anyone who might pick up on his incompetence and spread the word. He’s one of the Tory ministers who always leaves by the back door of the House of Commons, rather than risk being buttonholed by a reporter. He’s like Waldo, except when you play “Where’s Peter?” you can never find him, because he’s not in the picture.

It’s not impossible for a Tory to do well in the environment portfolio. Starting from the presumption that the environment is not exactly this government’s number one priority, a smart person can still talk a good fight. All you need to do is speak like you think clean water and breathable air is important. You can even tap-dance on climate change, saying, for instance, that you’re willing to stay abreast of the latest climate science and incorporate it in government policy, which effectively says nothing. You can at least pay lip service. And sometimes, you can do better than that. Jean Charest, when still a green twenty-something Conservative MP, was handed the environment portfolio after it was botched by a walking disaster named Suzanne Blais-Grenier. Back then, the issue was acid rain. Charest got a hold of the issue, talked it up, and Brian Mulroney took up the cause.

But Kent can’t talk. Very few of the Tory ministers can. It’s pathetic to see people who have been chosen by their constituents come to Ottawa, get sworn into cabinet, be given control of a government department, and then be gagged and hog-tied. Being a cabinet minister used to mean something in this country. You could influence great national issues. You could be a Clifford Sifton and settle the west, a C.D. Howe in charge of the war economy, a David Crombie arguing for better treatment of the country’s First Nations. But not now. The job entails being a trained monkey in Question Period, heckling the opposition and saying nothing when called on to answer a question. The full cabinet rarely meets anymore, and when it does, the time and place are secret.

Peter Kent will either live with being a puppet or he’ll shuffle off to political oblivion. But until then, he’s the point guy on the environment. This weekend, he heads to Durban for an important conference on climate change. Quite likely, he would do as much good staying home.

The environment is one of those things that comes back to haunt governments. A big disaster, say a PCB spill, the crack-up of an oil tanker along the west coast, even an abnormally hot summer, can pull environment from the bottom of the pollsters’ lists of important issues to the top. Then voters take the full measure of the people in charge. It may prove unwise for Stephen Harper to have appointed such a non-entity to be in charge of the quality of our water and our air. When those in charge don’t have a grip on basic environmental issues, natural selection can end up acting as ruthlessly as a PMO fixer.

CLARIFICATION: December 1, 8:01 PM We have been informed that Melissa Lantsman has stepped down from her position in Kent’s office for medical reasons.


  • Matthew Harper

    Hey, what do you expect? The Conservative base are rural Canadians, who have been led to believe their livelihood will be enhanced by pulling resources out of the ground as quickly as possible.

    • Anonymous

      Not so much. They do pretty well rurally, but they are also super strong in any suburb. At least they were in the last election.

  • David Toronto

    And to think that back in the ’70s, he created a stir at CBC
    for having hair going over his jacket collar while reading
    The National.

    And he gone downhill ever since.

  • Not Steve

    And don’t forget he was one of the Conservative MPs mailing ten-percenters outside his riding, targeting Liberal ridings with high Jewish populations, trying to convince people that the Liberals were anti-semitic. The Conservatives have a vast database of voter statistics and aren’t afraid to target people by their religion.

  • Slackranger5

    The Honourable Peter Kent. Minister of Environmental Degredation.

    • Capolicy

      Nothing whinier than a bunch of Torontoist readers who have discovered that a government has different priorities than their own,

      • JustinJC

        And whine they should! Every single aspect of the physical reality you enjoy is a product of the environment. Without a healthy environment, there is nothing Please enlighten us with your sound logic as to why we shouldn’t whine when we have an uneducated goon incompetently steering us towards biophysical melancholy?

        • Capolicy

          Just because you say that doesn’t make it true.

          • alex9

            But if you reread what he said and think about it for just half of a second you might be able to suck up your pride and admit that he’s right.

      • Anonymous

        Stop whining about Torontoist readers just because you’ve discovered they have priorities different from your own.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    Third-to-last paragraph has it. I’m an energy & environment guy, but the bigger tragedy here is that the centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office means that this government can’t make progress (regress?) on multiple fronts at once, and has a reduced capacity to make informed, rather than ideological, decisions.

    Ministers and especially MPs sit idle except when they are required to bark, like Kent, up the PMO’s tree of the day. Despite the ballooning budget of the PMO, it’s vastly less capable than a strong cabinet. The whole state of affairs is also a tremendous misuse of the whole apparatus of government.

  • Joekanuck

    Typical. While western resources are fueling the vehicles of the rest of the country, as well as the economies, users whine. While elitist prigs whine about the west, they gladly suckle at the teat when it suits if it means the lights staying on, the buses running and the furnace working.

    Where do you think the power for your life comes from…? Politically correct magic,,,?

    Get off the grid then maybe your alleged concerns for the environment.

    • Joekanuck

      …might be taken seriously. Of course, TO is the center of the universe and even though it’s one of the biggest energy sucking and polluting cities on the planet, it’s ok, because they’re still better than everybody else…especially the west.

      • michael Duffield

        Actually Toronto is neither one of the largest energy sucking or polluting cities on the planet. You may want to check your facts. Typical.

  • Stop Mine

    Peter Kent meeting with our mayor December 1st. We are asking for a federal panel review. We have had 0 media attention. Please help??!!

  • Anonymous

    What a stupid pile-on. And check out goateed Justin Trudeau making a pathetic attempt to look smart for a change by asking a question he probably just looked up on his iPhone.

    Anyway, we cut CFCs dramatically as scientists warned we should, yet the ozone hole didn’t respond as predicted. (Who knows, maybe it’s just natural varation?) Then the kicker – HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases. Sheesh, take your pick.

    • alex9

      Scientists knew that both CFC’s and HFC’s are greenhouse gasses, the only reason they suggested a cut in CFC emissions is because they are slightly worse of a greenhouse gas than HFC’s. Also just because a greenhouse gas is emitted in canada, that doesn’t necessarily have a direct correlation with where it will end up and cause damage. If you are able to follow the logic, this also means that foreign pollution can effect the ozone layer in the canadian atmosphere. So stop blaming scientists and hinting at the idea that their advice isn’t worth listening to because it is.

    • a4p

      CFC’s produce a catalytic reaction with ozone molecules. Very little CFC concentration is required to decimate atmospheric ozone. That, combined with lack of international regulation, is why ozone holes around the world continue to grow. It is true that Canada made great strides in the last decades to greatly reduce domestic production of CFC agents but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop. Ongoing monitoring monitoring of O3 and UV are still required, but more importantly is greater government transparency and smart, committed individuals in the positions overseeing these monitoring and action departments.

  • Anonymous

    Why does Harper even have a cabinet?

    • Eric S. Smith

      He’s a sucker for pageantry and tradition?

      The increasing power of the PMO was a problem in the Chrétien years, but I’m sure that there are some people (hint: Conservative Party members and supporters) who’ve suddenly decided that it’s not such a big deal.