Green groups throughout the province were breathing a little easier the night the Tories were tossed to the curb. Many dashed off to bed with visions of eco reform dancing in their heads. But when they awoke late last week to find favourite former eco critic and Peterson-era environment minister Jim Bradley passed over for the environment minister post for the little-known Leona Dombrowsky, most environmentalists did a double take. "I wasn't happy that Jim Bradley didn't receive either the environment or energy portfolio," says Dan McDermott, director of the Sierra Club of Eastern Canada. "From the point of view of the environmental community, I think either post would have been a rather obvious one for somebody with the experience and credibility of Mr. Bradley." So what, pray tell, went wrong? Why didn't the man who pioneered the province-wide blue box and acid rain reduction programs get the coveted green seat? That very experience is what some observers say cost him the job.
"The theory is, when you embrace a particular stakeholder's proposal or get into a fight with another one, you acquire baggage as critic that you carry into the minister's office, and that robs you of flexibility. It makes the government's course of action more constrained and restricted than it might otherwise be," says Graham Murray, consultant and publisher of Inside Queen's Park. "Whereas if you come with a fresh slate, it's easier to change policy or take those initiatives that people might claim you couldn't do if last week you'd said (otherwise)."
Or maybe McGuinty was just bending to industry fears that Bradley is a little too green for their liking. "There was considerable alarm in some industrial circles at the prospect of Mr. Bradley coming back in again, for fear that he'd been a tough, green environment minister and his approach would be to take a harsh line that would be dismaying to some," offers Murray. It's a reasonable surmise, he adds, that McGuinty was careful to take such concerns into consideration.
Enter Dombrowsky, a clean slate if ever there was one. The Tweed-based former stay-at-home mom and home daycare provider was the Liberals' family and child services critic. And after three and half years as MPP for Hastings-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington, she has virtually no burdensome ties to major environmental groups and one of the shortest records on eco issues. Calls to half a dozen of the province's largest eco orgs revealed that almost none had heard of her before last week. And depending on which debate you were at, the environment didn't even make Dombrowsky's top three platform issues. When it did, centrist public interest agendas like safer drinking water were at the heart of her green streak.
In the days following her appointment, outsiders searching for insight on Dombrowsky's green credentials got no help from the press.
Quick cabinet rundowns offered no background info except that she had once been chair of a separate school board. At best, pundits suggested she was a poor communicator likely to be eaten alive by the press and environmentalists.
NOW tried to reach Dombrowsky for commentary, but repeated calls were not returned.
Eco activists have been surprisingly quiet about her appointment. Guarded words of encouragement were offered by many of them. Any expression of disappointment or concern was strictly off the record. After nearly a decade of chainsaws and bulldozers under Tory rule, activists don't want to burn any bridges so early in the game.
Still David Donnelly of Environmental Defence Canada paused for a solid 60 seconds before saying, "Jim Bradley was the best minister of the environment we ever had, and I hope Minister Dombrowsky is even better."
Pollution Probe executive director Ken Ogilvie admits that environmentalists would have taken Bradley's appointment as a clear signal that the government would be taking a strong regulatory bent toward ecological problems. "Industry, of course, fights regulation. (They) prefer softer tools."
Earth-friendly activists are finding ways to put a positive spin on the current state of things. "(Dombrowsky) really does try to find balanced approaches," says Earthroots director Josh Matlow, whose group lobbied the MPP to prevent the mining of Mellon Lake Conservation Reserve in her riding. "She does not strike me as someone who goes out and picks up picket signs, but she usually comes out on the right side." And she did on the Mellon Lake issue but only after, Matlow and others admit, a great deal of lobbying and public outcry.
"She's been slow to respond to a couple of big issues here," says the area's NDP rep, Ross Sutherland, who just ran against Dombrowsky. "When she's been pushed she's slowly come on board, but even then she's been semi-luke-warm. It took her years to say that the expansion of the Richmond landfill is a bad idea."
Choosing Dombrowsky seems to signal the start of a middle-of-the-road approach to eco problems. But Donnelly says that's not necessarily a bad thing. "I think if the (Liberal) agenda had been vague or vapid, then we would have said that a guy like Bradley is essential because he knows what are the right things to do. The difference in this case is that the environment minister has a real mandate. Cancel 6,600 homes (on the Moraine), close coal-fired plants by 2007."
"If they don't," adds Donnelly, "then it's back to square one."