The Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) was enacted 25 years ago to protect, conserve and restore the environment. It gives Ontarians the right to take part in government decisions that significantly affect the environment – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we farm and the plants, animals and ecosystems in Ontario.
The Ontario government must consult the public using the Environmental Registry and consider public comments before making a final decision. It must also tell the public about its final decision as soon as possible, and explain how it considered the comments when making that decision.
But not all public consultation is done well.
What are the elements of good EBR public consultation?
Good public consultation is meaningful consultation. Asking for comments is one thing, but the government, in its decision-making, must sincerely consider comments.
Good public consultation means:
- Telling the public what you plan to do as early as possible.
- Giving enough details in plain language.
- Giving the public a chance to comment.
- Considering the public’s comments. Should changes be made?
- Telling the public about the final decision as soon as possible, with information on how comments were considered in decision-making.
1. Tell the public what you plan to do as early as possible.
The government should consult the public early when thinking about new laws, policies or programs, or changes to existing ones. Early consultation provides a real opportunity to include the public’s feedback in the final decision. If the government asks for comments late, there may not be time to properly incorporate improvements before the proposal is finalized.
For major proposals, like new laws, a staged approach is best. For example, the government may post a paper explaining the plan for a new law, and invite comments before the new law is formally proposed.
2. Give details in plain language.
Understanding a proposal is important for meaningful consultation. If the public doesn’t have access to enough details about a proposal, it will be hard to provide useful comments.
The government should explain the problem it is trying to solve and exactly what it proposes to do to about it. A clear explanation in plain language is important. This usually means including a complete draft of the proposal, as well as all supporting details and context that reasonable people would need to understand it.
3. Give the public a chance to comment.
Under the EBR, Ontarians have the right to comment in writing to the government on environmentally significant proposals. To provide informed comments, people need enough time to review the proposal and prepare their comments. The government should consider longer consultation periods for proposals that are complex, or that people are very interested in.
Ontarians can provide detailed and knowledgeable feedback as well as unique insights on many different proposals, if they have time. The timing of consultation is also important. Many groups have particular times of year when they are especially short of time; these are poor times to “consult” such groups.
4. Read the public’s comments. Should changes be made?
The government must consider the public’s comments when making a decision. Many people have information and points of view that the government may not have thought of. Local knowledge is very important when a proposal affects a specific place in Ontario. Comments can play an important part in improving a proposal.
Changes to proposals based on public comments can be big or small. Public support or opposition to a proposal may not affect the original proposal – consultation is not a vote or a veto. But for consultation to be meaningful, the government must thoughtfully consider all the comments received, and must be willing to consider changing their proposal.
5. Tell the public the final decision as soon as possible, with information about how comments were considered in decision-making.
People who take the time to comment on government proposals deserve to know the result.
The law requires the government to give notice “as soon as reasonably possible” after making an environmentally significant decision. The government must also explain any effects of public comments, including any changes made to the final decision because of public feedback. The government should provide a summary of key public comments and the government’s response to the comments. The summary can help to answer any questions about the decision, even if there were no changes based on the comments.
Timely posting of decisions is also essential so that Ontarians can exercise their rights to seek permission to appeal some kinds of environmentally significant permits. This right is only triggered when the decision is posted on the Environmental Registry.
Meaningful consultation can make for better decisions for the environment
Public comments on environmentally significant proposals have helped improve government decisions.
For good public consultation, the government should provide enough information, and provide it early with enough time for people to comment. The government must also consider comments when making decisions. Consultation that is not done properly wastes the public’s and the government’s time. Worse still, the value of a better decision could be lost.
The Environmental Bill of Rights calls for meaningful public consultation. When done right, all Ontarians get the benefit and the value of public involvement in environmental decisions. This is the vision of the EBR.