Premier Dennis Fentie and Environment Minister Elaine Taylor were pilloried in the legislature this week for refusing to say why pro-conservation policy documents written by bureaucrats were suppressed.
Fentie and Taylor failed to account for evidence suggesting Fentie politically interfered in the Peel Watershed land-use planning process earlier this year, when the land-use commission asked the Environment Department for data on the 70,000-square-kilometre region.
“This kind of a political interference in a neutral process is completely unacceptable and it has happened on this minister’s watch,” said Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell on Monday.
“Did the minister know that the premier was interfering in her department?”
Fentie took the question instead. He defended his interference as permissible under the Umbrella Final Agreement, something he hasn’t explained in detail.
But that answer – an oft-repeated scripted response – fails to explain most of Fentie’s actions.
When the Peel Watershed Planning Commission asked for information from environment officials last winter, the civil servants provided a 22-page document strongly supporting conservation in the Peel.
“The Peel River Watershed is one of the last remaining pristine – yet still accessible -wilderness watersheds on the planet,” reads the document.
But after Fentie got hold of it, he made an “irate call” to the deputy environment minister, Kelvin Leary, according to internal e-mails obtained by the News.
A few weeks later, the Environment Department handed the Peel commission a four-page document stripped of any strong pro-environment language. All the references to the dangers of mining in the region were gone too.
“At no time did the premier comment on the specific details of the proposed document that the member opposite is referring to,” said Taylor on Thursday. “At no time did he direct the department to change the document. At no time did the premier ask that this particular document, or any document for that matter, be included or excluded from the land-use planning process.”
But questions remain.
Why was Fentie so irate if he didn’t want to change anything? Why was the 22-page document shortened? Why was its content changed?
Taylor just repeated the government’s line, allowing the opposition to badger her further.
“The commission didn’t get the information from the experts; they got the opinion of the premier,” said Mitchell.
There’s also the question of Fentie breaking his word.
Last spring, Fentie declared he wouldn’t interfere in any capacity.
“The government side will not interfere in (the Peel land-use process),” said Fentie in the legislature in April. “These mandated processes have risen from the Umbrella Final Agreement and our final agreements here in the territory.”
Now, Fentie defends his interference by standing behind the Umbrella Final Agreement.
Unlike Taylor, Brad Cathers, who now sits as an independent after resigning from Fentie’s cabinet, was in the room when Fentie gave Leary the verbal smackdown.
“The premier went up and down in the legislature and the public about how he would behave in dealing with the Peel Watershed planning process,” said Cathers.
“What he did behind closed doors was something else.”
On top of breaking his word, Fentie also acted unprofessionally by yelling at the deputy environment minister, something the government also refused to address this week, said Cathers.
“The description of the e-mail is accurate,” he said. “I’d also add disrespectful to that and note that the premier had no interest in listening to the deputy minister’s advice or opinions.”
Fentie’s irate behaviour is his defence mechanism against anyone who disagrees with him, said Cathers.
“If someone is giving him ‘push-back,’ as he might call it, if there is disagreement with his opinions at all, or if someone is providing a contrary view, one of his common tactics for dealing with that is behaving with people in an irate manner and trying to intimidate them.”
In the legislature on Thursday, Mitchell cited a list of publicly known events in which Fentie lost his cool.
“We all remember him angrily walking out on a CBC television reporter,” said Mitchell. “The former chair of the Energy Corporation Board recounted a meeting he had with the premier last year. He said, ‘The premier phoned over in a rage and demanded that officials come to his office.’”
“We know staff who have worked for the premier are familiar with this type of behaviour and this type of treatment,” said Mitchell.
Cathers wouldn’t comment on the actual subject of the phone call, citing cabinet confidentiality.
But he did suspect Fentie’s call led to changes in the environment document.
“That’s not a question I can definitively answer but it’s reasonable speculation for people to make,” he said.
The opposition also asked why Taylor wasn’t present when Fentie yelled at her deputy minister, characterizing Taylor as overly obedient to Fentie’s demands.
“This premier said, ‘Jump,’ Mr. Speaker, and the minister asked, ‘How high?’” said Mitchell on Thursday.
Ironically, when Liberal MLA Eric Fairclough asked if Taylor would provide the Peel Watershed Planning Commission with the rest of the 22-page document, she accused the opposition of supporting political interference.
“I’m absolutely appalled with the member opposite,” said Taylor. “The Liberal caucus is now asking me to politically interfere in the land-use planning process – something I would never condone,” said Taylor.
The Peel commission is set to release its recommended land-use plan by the end of the month.
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