Peter Kent struggles to define role as environment boss

Former broadcaster knew how to spot landmines in media. In environment? Not so much

January 05, 2012

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Walking at a near trot and focused keenly on the floor tiles, federal Environment Minister Peter Kent went to caucus the other day. “Late!” he cried. Afterwards he declined interviews: “Travelling.”

Between “late” and “travelling,” Kent appears consumed. Back at his Parliament Hill office, staff discovered a poster-sized photo of a lightning strike and taped it to the front door for the enjoyment of visitors. That seems ominous.

Kent has only a slightly lesser chance of getting hit by an electrical storm than he does of surviving a full term at his job. Environment is the chump chore of cabinet. There have been five ministers in six years. Among the casualties was Calgary’s Jim Prentice, apparently so traumatized he quit mid-term in 2010 and cannot bear to speak of it. Prentice refused an interview. “Terrible job,” sighed a Conservative MP. “You go to meetings and people attack you.”

Why Kent was appointed has never been clear. He is a broadcast Hall of Famer who claims no expertise in either science or industry, though he once hosted a TV show called MoneyWise. “I have a feel for the sensibilities of the people, of the environment,” he insisted. In caucus he is regarded as earnest and unexciting. “Usually Environment gets f––g buried,” a colleague shrugged. “I guess he is trying.”

Kent was rated a Tory catch when he launched his political career with an “I’m-literally-mad-as-hell” announcement six years ago. He had spent 40 years in television, starting with CFCN-TV in 1965. As a star reporter, Kent covered the collapse of South Vietnam. As a star announcer, in 1976 he succeeded Lloyd Robertson in the $65,000 anchorman chair at CBC’s The National. Kent quit the public broadcaster for good in 1990, grumbling it was “hard not to be cynical about CBC management.”

In media, Kent knew where all the landmines were buried. In environment, not so much. “That was a deliberate strategy,” said a Conservative MP. “That way there’d be no assumption he had all the answers.”

Checkmate!

Here is Kent on cap-and-trade: “We had it on the table”; “We’ve taken that out”; “There’s no expectation of cap-and-trade”; “We don’t believe it would be wise”; “It can always be something to consider.”

When his department pointlessly targeted the closure of 21 of 23 water monitoring stations in the Northwest Territories – news that embarrassed the prime minister during his annual True North tour last summer – Kent said he had no idea what happened. When his department cut 776 jobs, Kent said that was all the staff’s doing.

Even Kent’s prowess in public speaking failed him in moments of stress. Exasperated one day by oil sands criticism, Kent vaulted into a giddy speech that sent Conservative eyes rolling. “That oil goes to strengthen democracy,” he said. “I’m not going to stand by while outsiders slander Canada, Canadian practices, values and our ethical oil!”

Kent is probably not entirely to blame. “You need political skills and sharp elbows,” says David Anderson, a Liberal who survived a record five years in the portfolio. “A lot of ministers get very fed up. The problem at environment is you cannot give any-body any-thing.”

Anderson, now 74, was a veteran of brawling British Columbia politics and years of cabinet infighting before he landed at the environment department in 1999. “You have to fight extra hard when you don’t have allies,” he says.

Now retired to Victoria, Anderson checks off Environment Canada deficiencies with military precision: a) no clear focus; b) no clear jurisdiction; c) no clear constituency. “In other departments you can do things for people,” he explains. “A minister has got to have some trading chips.”

Of the 39 chairs around the current cabinet table, 18 are mandated to promote economic growth – jobs, money, investment. Their missions are unmistakable. Kent on the other hand is minister of earth, wind and water – most of which falls under provincial jurisdiction, anyhow.

“I mean, Natural Resources Canada is organized to promote the development of the natural resources of Canada!” says Anderson; “Environment, you have nothing. It’s sort of a vague, general good with long-term unknowns, which often are not understood by the ministers themselves.”

Peter Kent marked his first anniversary as environment minister January 4. No celebration of any kind was planned.

Tom Korski is a reporter and independent documentary filmmaker on Parliament Hill. In his Prairie past he was the 1992 president of the Alberta Press Gallery.

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