Onetime Harper adviser resurfaces, vows to continue work on sustainability

OTTAWA – A onetime senior adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been named to a top environmental position at the University of Waterloo, where he’ll continue the work he says the government shut down because he was too focused on climate change.

“The roundtable lives,” David McLaughlin, the former CEO of the government’s National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, told The Canadian Press on Monday.

The appointment ends “a bit of a tough row in the last little while,” added McLaughlin, a leading public policy expert.

“It rebounded to my professional and financial detriment but you do what you’ve got to do.”

McLaughlin will serve as a strategic adviser on sustainability in the university’s faculty of environment. Waterloo is considered a Canadian leader in the field of sustainable development.

“At a time when energy issues, economic issues and the environment are all intertwined — you can’t talk about one E without referencing the other Es — then you need a place to talk about those things together to both reconcile competing arguments and also figure out policy approaches,” he said.

“You have to take the temperature down and you need a place to do that. In the absence of government engagement, then you have to look to universities. I chose Waterloo because I liked its ethos.”

McLaughlin is still smarting, however, from the government’s decision to shut down the national roundtable, which he helmed for five years. Funding to the group ceased in March 2013.

“I had a board that, in the end, was nine-tenths Conservatives, and even they didn’t understand the way the government was dealing with us,” he recalled.

“It was all about climate change and to a degree, carbon pricing. The government had been in the zone on cap and trade and a carbon pricing approach to dealing with climate change. And then, of course, they changed their position. This political orthodoxy kicked in and as it turned out, they just really didn’t like our research program.”

The change in attitude was puzzling, McLaughlin added, because he spoke often with oil company brass who were clamouring for oil and gas regulations. They were even open to a carbon tax and were interested in working with environmentalists, he said.

Cabinet ministers said funding was pulled because the group’s research was readily available elsewhere. But in the House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird linked the roundtable’s demise to its support for a carbon tax, accusing McLaughlin’s group of proposing such a levy in 10 separate reports.

Rather, in 2008 and again in 2010, the roundtable produced two reports that detailed options for Canada to reach its 2050 target to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Both recommended a cap-and-trade system, a strategy the Conservative government had initially considered.

McLaughlin is the second high-profile career public servant to strike out independently to continue the work stymied by the Conservatives.

Kevin Page, the onetime federal budget watchdog who locked horns with the government, is now at the University of Ottawa starting up a shadow parliamentary budget office.

Page was appointed to a five-year term as federal parliamentary budget officer in March 2008. Throughout his tenure, he was a frequent thorn in the side of the Conservatives as he churned out analytical reports on everything from the cost of the Afghan military mission to shipbuilding and fighter jet procurement programs and Ottawa’s fiscal framework.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty even took to personally maligning Page — at one point calling his work “unbelievable, unreliable, incredible.”

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