Opinion: It's time the foxes stopped guarding the hen house
Publish date: Monday, January 30, 2017
The B.C. Supreme Court has ruled that there was a conflict of interest in the Government’s approval process that led to a permit for the Shawnigan Lake contaminated waste dump to operate. The approval relied on a technical report that was prepared by engineers working for an organization who had financial interest in the project itself.
This is not an isolated incident. Sadly, the government continues to rely on external professionals to provide reports and evaluate resource development projects. Professional engineers, geologists and foresters from resource development companies are often put into conflicts of interest when it comes to balancing the public interest and interests of their employers, with their pay hanging in the balance. The Liberal Government changed B.C.’s laws more than a decade ago to move responsibility for resource development to private sector companies and at the same time has systematically downsized science officers and engineers in the B.C. public service. Professional reliance is the name for the government’s practice of increasing the use of outside experts.
The Professional Employees Association (PEA) has been highlighting the problems with professional reliance in B.C. for years. We’re not the only ones noting conflict of interest issues with professional reliance. In B.C., independent watch dog agencies such as the Forest Practices Board, the Auditor General and the Ombudsperson have all reported on the conflict in the model and called for numerous changes. These calls for change have not led to any substantive change in policy by the Government.
Since 2001, the B.C. public service has cut the number of in-house experts and scientists by 25 per cent. These independent professionals previously did the technical reporting work used to evaluate resource projects. A report from the Auditor General last spring highlighted that the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Energy and Mines lacked sufficient resources and tools to manage environmental risks.
We hope the government realizes that their ongoing cuts to scientists and experts in the B.C. public service is doing a disservice to the people of B.C. Professional reliance creates an environment ripe for conflict of interest and subsequent lengthy legal battles. We are not able to trust that environmental considerations and other matters of public interest are being considered as we develop B.C. resources. It’s time that we moved back to a system that relies more on independent experts and scientists employed by government. It’s time we moved the foxes away from the hen house.
Scott McCannell is the executive director of the Professional Employees Association, a trade union representing science officers in the BC public service.