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Who Mowed Down the Premier?

Cosmetic pesticide issue pits Cancer Society versus BC government in no-win situation for Christy Clark.

Bill Tieleman 22 May

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

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Clark's garden party: Premier MLA study group, a top advisor, and Fraser Institute all oppose ban on lawn care pesticides.

"The Canadian Cancer Society is very disappointed... I think it does have the potential to put the health of British Columbians at risk." -- Nancy Falconer, Canadian Cancer Society

Big business and lobbyists have publicly defeated the plans of not one but two successive BC Liberal premiers, the Canadian Cancer Society and the Lung Association to ban cosmetic pesticides.

Last week a special legislative committee led by renegade BC Liberal MLA Bill Bennett and dominated by her MLAs handed Premier Christy Clark and Environment Minister Terry Lake a stunning rebuke -- rejecting Clark and Lake's stated goal of banning pesticides and herbicides believed to cause cancer.

Bennett's majority ruling also rejected the pro-ban submissions of roughly 80 per cent of the over 8,600 individuals and organizations that participated -- a record number for a B.C. committee.

Now Clark faces a lose-lose proposition.

She can either kowtow to the cosmetic pesticide industry in a humiliating surrender that will cost votes among urban environmentalists and conservationists -- or override her own MLAs' lengthy study and embarrass them in public 11 months before an election while also aggravating some rural voters.

New Democrat MLAs on the committee support the ban, ironically having accepted Clark's invitation to work together, while her own MLAs went rogue.

Promises made

Clark just can't win on this one but she should have at least known better when she proposed the ban during her BC Liberal leadership campaign.

That's because former Premier Gordon Campbell -- you know, the guy whose name she never says in public (kind of like Lord Valdemort's in the Harry Potter books) promised similar action in the 2009 B.C. Throne Speech.

"British Columbians will be consulted on new statutory protections to further safeguard our environment from cosmetic chemical pesticides," it said.

But that 2009 promise was broken after well-organized cosmetic and agricultural pesticide users mounted a powerful petition campaign to enlist the opposition of golf club members, sports field users, nearby homeowners and others to kill the ban dead.

And Clark's own promise was even more threatening to the industry.

"To put families first, we must ensure that our families are raised in safe environments," Clark said during her leadership run.

"That is why I want to see a ban on cosmetic pesticides on lawns, parks and playgrounds. These dangerous pesticides are proven to increase the likelihood of childhood cancer and other illnesses, and have no place near our homes. I don't want to see my son playing on a lawn with toxic pesticides. I don't want to see anyone's child playing on a lawn with toxic pesticides."

Pesticide makers' backlash

As premier, Clark set up a special legislative committee to investigate a ban, chaired by MLA Margaret MacDiarmid, a family physician and former president of the B.C. Medical Association.

But when MacDiarmid was promoted to cabinet, the chair went to Bennett -- an outspoken right-wing rural MLA who has previously been suspended from the BC Liberal caucus for public criticism of Campbell before the premier was forced to resign.

And the ban proposal also brought a well-funded effort from the multinational makers of agricultural, lawn and garden chemicals like Round-Up and Killex under the umbrella group CropLife Canada, which also includes agricultural producers.

Killex is produced by Scotts Canada and Round-Up is manufactured by Monsanto, both CropLife members, for example.

Other CropLife members include Dupont, Federated Co-operatives Ltd., which donated $2,650 to the BC Liberal Party since 2010 Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, whose Canadian arm donated $2,500 in 2005 and Univar Canada, which donated $925 in 2009.

CropLife wasted no time trying to kill the second attempt at a cosmetic pesticide ban, hiring prominent senior lobbyist Bruce Young of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group to represent their interests starting in March 2010 and ending March 31, 2012.

Young's "targets" according to the B.C. Lobbyists Registry, included Clark and just about every other BC Liberal MLA, as well as New Democrats and independents.

(Young also lobbies on behalf of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, among other groups and businesses.)

Earnscliffe's Michael Drummond also worked for CropLife until April 30, 2012 and four in-house CropLife executives also registered to contact MLAs.

Premier Clark's divided house

The anti-cosmetic pesticide ban forces also have a very powerful ally in Gwyn Morgan -- a key transition team advisor to Clark during her leadership campaign and the former CEO of Encana, the giant natural gas firm.

Morgan has publicly attacked municipal bans on carcinogenic insecticides and weed killers, saying the Canadian Cancer Society was supporting "junk science," as were any "scientifically illiterate municipal councilors" who agreed with it.

Claimed Morgan: "The medical evidence is scant."

After all, what do the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, the Lung Association, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and the Public Health Association of B.C. know about medicine anyway and how dare they call for a ban?

Morgan no doubt disagrees with the more than 70 per cent of British Columbians who favoured legislation restricting pesticide use in a 2010 Canadian Cancer Society commissioned poll and has made clear his views on the over 35 B.C. municipalities that already restrict cosmetic use of pesticides.

The Canadian Cancer Society isn’t impressed with the Bennett committee's decision.

"If these recommendations become law, they will not protect all British Columbian children from being exposed to unnecessary chemicals and possible carcinogens," said Barbara Kaminsky, CEO for the B.C. and Yukon branch of the Society.

"We waited years for the B.C. government to follow the lead of other provinces and B.C. municipalities, and this is the result? The report was slow in coming and is weak in content. It is disappointing overall," Kaminsky said.  

Fraser Institute's green (lawn) argument

Legislative committee vice-chair, NDP MLA Rob Fleming, agrees.

"New Democrats are profoundly disappointed in the outcome of this process," said Fleming. "The associated health risks of cosmetic pesticides warrants government action to reduce everyday exposure to toxins that are potentially harmful and easily misused."

But joining Bennett and Morgan in opposing the Cancer Society's call for a ban on pesticides -- the right-wing Fraser Institute think-tank.

"Prohibiting the cosmetic use of synthetic pesticides ignores the benefits enjoyed by Canadians in maintaining aesthetically pleasing green landscapes," states an article in its Fraser Forum magazine. "Either a blanket ban or an environmental tax will encourage individuals to substitute natural alternatives that can be potentially more harmful."

Yes, what could be more harmful than pesticides except "natural alternatives"?

Morgan, not surprisingly, is a big fan of the Fraser Institute, sitting on its board of directors and donating $1 million to it together with his wife Pat Trottier. And he is a public defender of genetically modified foods too.

Morgan also sits on the board of the Manning Centre for Democracy, the group formed by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning. The Manning Centre hosted longtime federal Liberal Clark earlier this year for a breakfast speech at a gathering titled "a conservative family reunion" in an effort to bolster her Tory credentials.

But Clark's right-wing pals like Bennett, Morgan and the Fraser Institute may seem more like pests to her now as she faces a no-win decision on cosmetic pesticides that can only alienate one group of voters or another when she needs far more support, not less.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Environment

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