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February 22, 2005

Rocky ride for Dion?

The environment minister still hopes he'll get agreement from automakers on his Kyoto plan


Stéphan Dion is not a normal politician. Plucked from his post as a Université de Montréal political science professor in early 1996, he joined Jean Chrétien's cabinet as an owlish unknown. But not for long. Soon Dion established his persona as scourge of Quebec's sovereignists, turning his post as intergovernmental affairs minister into a bully pulpit from which he touted federalism's advantages at every opportunity -- in merciless detail. His mastery of the file made him a maddeningly difficult debating opponent for separatists. But when Prime Minister Paul Martin named him environment minister last July, Dion's ability to transfer his anti-charismatic style to such a different portfolio was open to question. Would he be effective beyond arcane constitutional dust-ups? The answer will come with the Kyoto plan he's vowed to deliver in the coming weeks, and the key test within it may be the treatment of the auto sector.


Among environmental activists, though, Dion has built up a base of admirers in advance of tabling his all-important blueprint for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It's not because he's charmed them. Just as with the unity file, Dion wins respect through attention to complexities that many top politicians leave to their aides. "He's the most hands-on environment minister in memory," says one veteran environmental lobbyist. "A report is passed to him and it comes back with his detailed notes in the margins." Unlike his predecessor, David Anderson, a longstanding environmentalist who could speak soulfully about the beauty of his Vancouver Island home, Dion tends to frame his commitment in far less personal terms. "We need to bring the environment and the economy together," he says of his vision. "This is the most important issue for the quality of life of Canadians and humanity -- the capacity to succeed in a sustainable economy."

Canada's auto industry executives might well wish they could return to Anderson's poetry after Dion's pragmatism. Where Anderson tended to clash with cabinet ministers preoccupied with the economy, Dion has worked in his dogged way to make common cause with them. That seems to have won him a more direct say on the key question of car and truck emissions. "Slowly over the summer and into the fall, he insinuated himself into the debate," says John Bennett, a Sierra Club of Canada policy adviser on climate change. Responsibility for fuel efficiency had rested squarely with Natural Resources Minister John Efford. But by the time top auto executives came to Ottawa to meet key Liberal ministers last November, Dion appears to have been a major voice. When auto company presidents met again with ministers early this month, Dion's demand for a big contribution from the industry toward his Kyoto plan seems to have made him their main adversary.

Not that he would put it that way. He portrays his insistence that the industry must cut emissions from cars and trucks by 25 per cent, or 5.2 megatonnes of greenhouse gases a year by 2010, as a favour to them. "The target we have for the auto industry to achieve is feasible, realistic and good for their competitiveness around the world," he told Maclean's, arguing that similar standards imposed in Japan and Europe spurred automakers there to improve their plants and products. Canada's automakers have recently handed Ottawa a plan for hitting the federal target. But instead of relying only on a shift to selling more cars that burn less fuel, they are proposing such wrinkles as more efficient automotive air conditioners. Dion wouldn't get into specifics, but said company and government engineers are now comparing notes. "We are confident that we'll have a voluntary agreement. Hopefully, we will not have to regulate."

The automakers express their aversion to regulation a little more strongly. "The government needs to understand that the size of the Canadian market is insufficient to drive vehicle design," says Mark Nantais, president of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers' Association. "If they were to choose to regulate, that would come with severe consequences, both in terms of manufacturing in Canada, as well as a great loss of consumer choice." Car companies are engaged in a legal battle over California's bid to force emission cuts, but Dion seems unfazed by the prospect of Canada also striking out on its own. "We have different standards from the U.S. for many other substances," he says, "so it's not a problem." Not for him, anyway. Now all he has to do is get DaimlerChrysler Canada, Ford Motor Co. of Canada, General Motors of Canada, Honda Canada and Toyota Canada to agree.

John Geddes goes one-on-one with Environment Minister Stéphane Dion. See the Q&A here.

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