Institutional Impacts on the State of the Environment: Provincial and National Experiences in Setting Environmental Policy in Westminster-based Systems of Government

Project Summary

Throughout the world, environmental issues and their management have become increasingly recognized as critical considerations in public policy, particularly in relation to sustainable development. The main tenet of sustainable development is that social, economic and environmental values will be balanced in decision-making and that intergenerational equity will be at the forefront of government policy initiatives. As a result, many governments have been actively pursuing reform in their policies and legislation to encompass a broader range of values and management strategies that are consistent with the principles of sustainable development. Further, public acceptance and support for sustainable development has enabled many government agencies to actively pursue processes and frameworks designed to consider the environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainability. It is here that science provides knowledge about causes, effects and mitigation of environmental problems, while policy provides a principle or guideline for action in a specific world context. Ultimately it is argued that integrated approaches to policy-making, achieved through interdisciplinary approaches to science and policy, will work to overcome institutional barriers.

Recent science-policy debates have emphasised a growing role for science in helping to address some of society's most pressing environmental challenges, with many scientists working with the idea that if governments are told what the science reveals ‘correct’ policies will follow. However, within a Westminster system of government (a democratic, parliamentary system modelled after the United Kingdom), where policy must be unanimously agreed to in Cabinet, the environmental issues that require a policy response can take a back seat to more pressing social and economic pressures, or can even be pushed forward without adequate supporting evidence. In each case, it is the role of the Minister for Environment (or equivalent) to argue for a particular environmental policy drawing on the strength of their position within the Party, the weight of scientific evidence, Departmental briefings and/or inter-Departmental consultation prior to the Cabinet meeting. Despite the significance of this process for environment-related science and policy, there has been no comparative research on the experiences of past Ministers and senior bureaucrats responsible for environment portfolios at both the Provincial/State and Federal levels of government in Westminster-based jurisdictions. This is a significant gap in the research literature because the role of Cabinet is central to any effort to progress sustainable development in these jurisdictions.

Focussing on the 35 year period between 1971 (the year that the Canadian Government appointed its first Environment Minister) and 2006, the proposed research will explore the processes that move environment-related science into public policy and the outcomes that emerge from that process in Westminster-based jurisdictions (provincial and federal). This research will explore the changing face of environment-related issues in these jurisdictions to clarify the obstacles facing government agencies charged with achieving environmental outcomes through public policy. Such a study will provide valuable insights into the challenges facing environment-related science as it strives to equip these governments with the tools necessary for sustainable development. Covering a wide range of environmental issues, the research outcomes will consider the natural tension between evidence-based policy-making and the political environment of formal and informal stakeholders who can give or withhold ‘permission’ and resources for what the government is doing. The research will also explore the different ways of thinking about environment-related public policy issues in a strategic sense, particularly at a Provincial versus Federal level. Here the aim is to provide an expansive view of where environmental issues fit into a broader context of government creating public value.


This project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).