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politics

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.

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