Minister adds turbulence to wind debate

Jim Coyle , Toronto Star

In some parts of Ontario, folks are understandably edgy about being trampled in the provincial government’s stampede to the brave new world of windmill power.

For them, the performance this week by the minister in charge of installing the twirling green giants can hardly have eased the mind.

Unhappily, George Smitherman has rarely seen a discussion he wouldn’t sooner turn into a brawl.

Property owners with wind turbines in their neighbourhood’s future have already been dismissed by the minister of energy and infrastructure (and the premier) as NIMBYs to be swept expeditiously aside.

Patricia Spindel is one of those offended by the insults. She lives in Scarborough. Her neighbours, she says, drive energy-efficient cars and ride bicycles. They support community cleanup of the Bluffs and garage sales to encourage recycling. They are entitled, she insists, to ask questions – without being belittled and having their environmental consciousness questioned – about the effects on their property values and quality of life of large wind turbines proposed for installation a couple of kilometres offshore in Lake Ontario.

“We are concerned that we are about to become collateral damage in a poorly conceived wind-farm project with questionable returns for the sake of symbolic politics,” she said in an email.

She also sent letters to both Smitherman and Premier Dalton McGuinty objecting to the derogatory light in which residents’ groups had been cast.

“To have politicians like yourself attack local citizens and portray them as NIMBY when they raise legitimate concerns is unconscionable.”

She makes a fair point.

McGuinty and Smitherman defend the energy audits their proposed Green Energy Act will make mandatory on home sales on the grounds buyers are entitled to as much information as possible when making the “biggest investment of their life.”

Then, when other homeowners try to protect the biggest investment of theirs, and demand the most information possible, they are called names.

The premier usually plays good cop in his act with Smitherman and insists all environmental and safety concerns will get an adequate airing.

But his minister’s performance on introduction of the bill this week – and in leading off second-reading debate – will hardly alleviate fears that his favourite green machine is a steamroller.

The bill, a complex affair with many to-be-determined aspects, was introduced, and available to the opposition for the first time, on Monday.

On Tuesday, Progressive Conservative energy critic John Yakabuski proposed it be sent to committee for analysis – as a much less complicated piece of energy legislation had in the past – so second-reading debate could be more informed and productive.

Predictably, even a reasonable request got a sneering slap-down from Smitherman.

“I do apologize to the member if the matter at hand has caught him off guard and it’s too complex for him to be able to participate in the legislative debate,” he said.

The dripping condescension is probably a sign of what’s to come for any daring to question Smitherman’s plan.

The openness of the minister’s mind was also rendered doubtful by the fact that just minutes into second-reading debate he was already opting not to discuss the bill but to mock opponents.

They were, he taunted, “throwing up their arms and saying, `No, we’re not ready for such a discussion. Let’s put it out to the people, because … we cannot get our heads wrapped around it.'”

It’s long been taken for granted that George Smitherman couldn’t find the political high road with a state-of-the-art GPS.

His boss should make sure, however, that people looking for the government’s ear get better than the back of the minister’s hand.

Jim Coyle’s provincial affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.