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What Reagan’s EPA Can Teach About the Rights and Democracy Dispute

February 28, 2010
Canadian flag held at protest.

CC-licensed image courtesy Flickr user 'shanta.'

It says a lot when the ongoing controversy at the “arm’s length” federal human rights agency Rights and Democracy has worn down a tough and persistent journalist like Paul Wells.  But in reading Wells’ last missive on point, that is essentially what he implies: No matter how much reporting and fact-checking he does, all the government appointed Board members offer is misinformation and obscurity, rather than the transparency and accountability that they claim as their mantle.  All they need to do is “outlast” him.  And if Wells decides, as his article implies, to end, or significantly scale back, his focus on Rights and Democracy, the Board (and the Federal Government) is on its way to outlasting its most vigilant and important critic. But that just puts more responsibility on other journalists and bloggers to maintain the focus. Wells has done his part, it’s now time for others to continue to shine that disinfecting light.

Part of that responsibility is asking: why?  Why has Rights and Democracy, up until this year a federal agency that quietly went about its work, found itself at the middle of such intense media scrutiny and public airing of dirty linen (and, possibly, dirty politics)?  Of course certain extraordinary events like the untimely death of the agency’s former president, or the criminal break in, explain some of the media attention; but I am interested in exploring the broader politics and public policies, if any, that led us to the internal disputes and divisions in the beginning.

Some have suggested this is about Middle East politics.  About the Harper Government taking a decidedly different approach to the region than past Liberal, even Conservative, Federal Governments.  That seems to be what Wells implies in several of this article, and what both James Travers,  and my colleague Corwin, see in the machinations of the current Rights and Democracy controversy.

And given  that Harper has often calibrated foreign policy around domestic partisan politics, there is no doubt something to this angle of view.  But I think this is only part of the story; and, in fact, the answer though just as ideological, is something much more simple and more consistent with this Government’s approach to foreign policy in other areas: it just doesn’t believe in agencies like Rights and Democracy conducting foreign policy, and so it took steps not to manipulate it, but simply to grind its work to a halt.  Its Board appointments were not so much an attempted ideological coup d’etat than a big, obtuse, monkey wrench thrown into the gears of an agency it preferred did not exist.

One of the first acts of newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan in 1980, was to decide who he would appoint as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.  Reagan had long believed that the EPA was an over-reaching over-regulating federal agency. In fact, he specifically campaigned on a platform of deregulation, and singled out the EPA and its environmental regulations as a specific target.

But Reagan was a smart politician.  While he had rallied public sentiment against the agency, there was no appetite for it to be completely shut down.  That would require legislation, and a long hard fight in Congress that would expend precious political capital.  No, legislating the EPA out of existence would not do.  So, instead of taking steps to eliminate the agency, Reagan did the next best thing: to render the EPA unable to carry out its mandate.  Reagan broke with tradition and appointed an EPA director that was openly hostile to the agency itself, Anne Gorsuch Burford.  Burford shared Reagan’s philosophy that government needed to be cut down to size, and the EPA was part of that red tape and governmental over-reaching.  She cut the agency’s budget. Spoke out against its missions, and significantly reduced the EPA’s enforcement actions.  Under her (non) leadership, the EPA ground to a halt, embattled, internally divided, and unable to carry out its important work.  Reagan achieved through executive appointment what he could not do by law.

This, arguably, was the real aim of the Harper Government with its appointments at Rights and Democracy. Though politics is central to the equation, the end game was not a change in Middle East politics, but simply to render ineffectual a federal agency that the Government would rather live without.  Like the EPA under Reagan, Rights and Democracy is embattled, internally divided, and unable to carry out its mandate or operations.  Through executive discretion, the Government likewise achieved what it could not do by legislating in a minority Parliament.

Harper, as Doug Saunders has illustrated and I  suggested, has shown little interest in a broader internationalist or human security based foreign policy.  And this “theory” of the dispute at the federal agency is entirely consistent with these politics and public policy approach.  The result?  Yes, clever politics win.  But Rights and Democracy also suffer.  And I don’t mean the agency.

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