Column: report card for professional reliance experiment

Columnist Jim Hilton on a recent Environmental Law Centre review

After attending a number of forums and reading the related literature about the upcoming vote on electoral reform, I realized how quickly people start to take sides and overly politicize some topics.

I see the potential for the same thing to happen with a recent review by the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) on professional reliance. This fourth report by the ELC at the University of Victoria was requested in the fall of 2017 by the new NDP/Green party came out in July of this year. The 135-page report by lead author Mark Haddock contained 121 recommendations for correcting some the weaknesses resulting from the attempt by the liberal government to reduce the size of government and deregulate over a wide variety of natural resource sectors.

Battle lines are forming with Council of Forest Industries (COFI), calling for the report to be scrapped, while environmental organizations like the BC Coalition For Forestry Reform (BCCFR) is calling for all of the recommendations to be implement immediately.

In order to reduce the political posturing, I suggest a review of the ELC report that came out in 2015 after more than a decade of implementing “reduced civil service and red tape” forestry experiment and before the election of a new minority government.

In 2001-02, under former premier Gordon Campbell, the government set an ambitious goal of cutting or deregulating one-third of the regulations, coupled with an equivalent reduction in the size of the public service. Natural resource management and environmental protection laws and agencies were a prime focus for this initiative as government believed resource companies were significantly over-regulated.

The focus was to shift from reliance on government bureaucrats to professionals in the private sector. To retain environmental standards the government revised legislation for self-governing professions such as foresters and agrologists and established a new college for biologists.

Professional accountability would be maintained primarily through the enforcement of codes of ethics and the disciplinary processes of professional associations, rather than through the approval of plans, permits and licences by government agencies. This was the “new era of professional reliance” or sometimes called “results-based forestry” when discussing the forest industry.

After more than a decade of using the new system, it seemed appropriate to see if the environmental concerns were being met. In some cases, the professional can be the evaluator, planner, approving professional and the supplier of goods and services with duties of loyalty that may conflict with optimal environmental outcomes. There is a much greater reliance on the judgment of independent professionals and on the ability of the respective professional associations to address any problems that arise.

The report describes a minimal effort by the government to assess the effectiveness of the current professional reliance regimes, or resolve to address known problems identified by the Auditor General, Ombudsperson, Forest Practices Board and others.

The authors of the report therefore state the following: “We conclude that much of B.C.’s deregulation goes too far in handing over what are essentially matters of public interest to those employed by industry. Proponents should not be decision makers for matters involving the weighing and balancing of multiple, often competing, environmental and societal values. This raises insolvable conflicts of interest and a lack of democratic accountability for many resource management decisions.”

In Section 4, the authors suggest a “threshold test” that considers nine factors to determine when professional reliance is appropriate, and recommend a review of current professional reliance regimes against those factors before any further expansion of this approach.

The details will require a number of articles hopefully with input from local professionals involved with resource management issues.

Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo-Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.

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