The shocker in Rodney MacDonald's recent cabinet shuffle is the replacement of environment minister Mark Parent with veteran David Morse, who leaves natural resources. It's a sign of an urgent environmental crisis that Morse considers this a promotion. As Ecology Action Centre director Mark Butler puts it: "Ten years ago, that's a demotion."
After a week's delay, Morse hit the ground running with the release of the long-awaited (and four times delayed, nine months overdue) Climate Change Action Plan.
The plan draws mixed reactions. "If this were 2004 this would be a great plan," says NDP environment critic Graham Steele. "They are planning a lot of things that should have been done long ago. There is no budget allocated; everything is going to be decided later."
After the launch of the action plan, Morse calls me from his hands-free on his way back to the Valley. "It shows you the premier believes in recycling," he jokes, referring to his previous stint at the environment helm, from 2001-2002, when it was a departmental lightweight.
Morse says the combination of his previous experience in Environment and his years in Natural Resources give him the cred he needs to handle "an important and somewhat delicate portfolio." But the timing of the change and the popularity of Parent, have left the opposition and the environmental community shaking their heads.
"Parent was good to deal with," says Keith Colwell, Liberal environment critic. The only reason for the shuffle, he adds, is that the premier "wanted to realign some people to maintain their seats." In other words, less popular MLAs are promoted to increase their chances at re-election.
NDP environment critic Graham Steele is reserved in his acknowledgement of Parent's legacy. "He meant well and he was personally committed, but I don't think he accomplished a great deal," Steele says. "But if it has to be a Conservative minister, it should be Parent."
EAC's Mark Butler wonders, "was Rodney MacDonald uncomfortable that Parent was taking his job seriously?" He partially credits Parent for transforming the ministry from a "weak underfoot body" into one with teeth. He is reserving judgement on Morse until he sees him in action, saying only, "he seems sincerely concerned."
As for Morse, he posits that Parent "was a victim of his own success," acknowledging the "incredible job he did." Morse says the premiere wanted an experienced presence in Environment, and with 10 years as an MLA, he is more experienced than the rest of cabinet.
On his own track record, Morse says he laid the foundation in 2002 for much current work on environment. "My fingerprints are all over this document," he says of Parent's Climate Change Action Plan. "I initiated limits on air pollutants the first time I was environment minister."
Morse notes that he helped initiate a provincial-federal panel to review plans by Bilcon for a mega-quarry in Digby. The panel listened to objections from the community and rejected the proposal. Dr. Janet Eaton, a veteran activist who petitioned Morse about the quarry seven years ago, calls Morse "someone who will listen to his constituents and weigh their opinions fairly."
What rankles environmentalists most about their new minister is his stance on uranium mining. He has repeatedly pointed to a 1994 report by staff at the departments of Natural Resources, Health and Environment that "unanimously came to conclude that uranium can be mined safely under existing federal regulations." Morse adds that uranium mining would be safe and good for our economy. Yet, he says he "recommended to the premiere that the province's moratorium on mining be kept in place" because public opinion does not support a change.
According to Gretchen Fitzgerald, director of Sierra Club Atlantic, "dealing with uranium waste remains an issue that the industry has not overcome." She quotes judge McCleave, whose 1982 report catalyzed the uranium moratorium and who wrote, "the decay of uranium takes place over a long time, thousands more times than any civilization for which we have history."
Steele feels that Morse's uranium stance shows he is "committed to development at the expense of environment. It's not comforting to have someone who says these things as minister of environment."
Morse contends that his lifelong commitment to nature makes him the man for the job. "For the boy who grew up in south end Halifax and knew every square inch of Point Pleasant Park," he says, "to become environment minister for the second time is a great honour. It comes naturally to me."
Is Morse a breath of fresh air or a stagnant stench left over from the '90s? Let Chris Benjamin know at firstname.lastname@example.org.