BC's dysfunctional resource debate, Part 2: It’s our institutions, stupid

This is the second post in a series looking at why our public discourse has become so toxic


The first post looked at how Canadians have lost trust in government and business leaders, and how this makes it tremendously difficult for regular citizens to discuss complex topics in a productive way.

Today, I want to talk about a related issue: the loss of influence of our public institutions.


Why we depend on good regulators

Earlier this spring, Brian Lee Crowley (the head of the Macdonald Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank) published a compelling argument: Canada’s resource wealth lies not only in the resources themselves (there are less wealthy countries with more of the stuff that we have) but in the strength of our systems.

Our reliable courts, banks and governments give industry leaders the confidence they need to invest fortunes to develop resource projects that won’t generate any income for many years.

Any yet the thing our institutions seem unable to do these days - or at least less able to do - is generate public support for major projects, or social licence, as it’s often called.


The only ones who can do the job

The Canada West Foundation recently published a report discussing the problems Canada’s natural-resources sector has with public acceptance. They found that, over the long term, it’s the work of government institutions that produces lasting public confidence:

“The only route to a more stable environment for securing public support is one with appropriate policy, regulatory and institutional support. This requires federal, provincial and territorial governments to step up much more actively and systematically. Only government can take responsibility for actions such as land use planning, social planning, environmental assessment, environmental and health and safety regulation, and formal approval processes.”

Governments are the caretakers of our public resources. It’s their job to ensure that the public benefits from resource extraction and are not harmed by any negative consequences. Ideally, the government would decide which resource projects are in the public’s best interest and those projects would then go ahead with public support. But it’s not working that way.


But if you can’t trust the bureaucrats ...

As the Canada West report finds: “The loss of confidence in regulatory agencies in Canada is widespread.” Governments find the regulatory processes cumbersome and often at odds with their policy goals; industry finds them costly, complex and slow; and other groups find them daunting and unfair.

This despite the fact that Canada is considered a world leader in responsible resource development. (We covered one such study here.)

To develop our natural resources well, we must be able to trust our institutions to act as diligent caretakers of our natural resources. And after they’ve completed a rigorous assessment, they need the authority to grant real public legitimacy. But today, it seems, they cannot.


Institutions need fixing

The Canada West report recommends that, to fix this problem, we need to re-examine our regulatory institutions from top to bottom. We need to ask tough questions about what they are fundamentally meant to accomplish and demand whatever changes are needed to help them do those jobs well. Public confidence cannot be bought; it must be earned.

While there may be little love for bureaucratic regulators, we need them. When it comes to building the long-term public confidence our resource-based economy needs, there’s simply no substitute.


Peter Severinson is the Research Director for Resource Works.

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