Canada has seen its share of ethically compromised politicians, from Bill Vander Zalm and Brian Mulroney to former Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum and, if you’re so inclined, Justin Trudeau. But Doug Ford has always seemed destined to outdo his peers on this front, and a scandalous new report from Ontario’s auditor general on his handling of the Greenbelt may cement his legacy here. In the process, he’ll test one of my longest-held political beliefs, which is that the public never takes a scandal about government corruption as seriously as pundits and political opponents think they should.
It’s hard to know where to start with auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s report. What’s worse: that the land didn’t actually need to be removed to meet the province’s housing goals, that the removals were almost all directed by political staff or that the developers associated with the lands in question — which include conservative donors like Silvio De Gasperis — stand to reap an $8.3-billion financial benefit? Pick your poison, if you will: they all ought to be enough to kill a sitting government.
Let’s start with the way the Greenbelt was opened up to development.
“Political staff had substantial control over the entire Greenbelt amendment exercise,” Lysyk’s report says. “The Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff provided a small team of non-political public service staff in the Housing Ministry the criteria to be used in the selection process, directed the team to alter the criteria to facilitate the selection of many sites provided by the Chief of Staff, and imposed a three-week timeline and confidentiality provisions, limiting the team’s time and ability to assess the land sites and provide alternatives.”
Oh, but it gets worse.
“Even though hundreds of site removal requests had been submitted to the Housing Ministry since the Greenbelt was established in 2005, only 22 land sites were considered in the 2022 selection exercise. Of those, only one was proposed by the Housing Ministry’s non-political public service staff, while 21 were provided directly by the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff. Of the 15 land sites ultimately approved for removal in December 2022, 14 were brought into the exercise by the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff and one was identified by the Housing Ministry’s non-political public service staff.”
Not disgusted yet? Read on.
“About 67% (4,900) of the approximately 7,400 acres ultimately removed from the Greenbelt are on two land sites for which information was given by two developers to the Chief of Staff in September 2022 at an industry function they all attended. Overall, 92% (6,800) of the approximately 7,400 acres ultimately removed from the Greenbelt related to five land sites involving three developers.”
This sort of pay-to-play politics may not be new to Canada, but the scale is unprecedented — and unjustifiable.
Doug Ford's $8.3-billion Greenbelt grift is a litmus test for whether voters will actually stand up to political corruption. If they give him and his PCs a pass, it'll send a dangerous message to other politicians about just how far they can go.
This should be a crippling wound to Ford’s government and a permanent hit to his personal popularity and credibility. But that’s only true if the public actually expects elected officials to behave ethically, and I’m just not sure that’s going to hold. That’s especially true with someone like Ford, whose own decidedly sketchy past and behaviour as a city councillor didn’t stop Ontarians from electing him to majority governments twice. If the public already sees him as ethically compromised and has given him a pass on that front, how exactly will this news change anything?
Time will tell, of course, and there’s still plenty of it left — three years — until the next provincial election. But if the Ontario Liberals (and sure, the Ontario NDP) can’t make hay with this, it will simply invite other politicians to do the same thing — or worse. That’s especially true at the levels of government (municipal, for example) that don’t get as much coverage from the ever-dwindling crowd of political journalists in Canada, where investigations like this cost time and money they no longer have.
The Greenbelt, which has been a provincial political story for years, is now very clearly a national one. If Ford and his government aren’t punished for this, the public’s faith in government and politicians — which is already plumbing some pretty alarming depths — will surely fall even further.
And make no mistake: once a door like this has been kicked open wide, other bad actors will be more than happy to walk through it. Ford won’t be shamed into an apology here, I don’t think, much less a resignation. But it’s up to the voters of Ontario to ensure that the right message gets sent. Here’s hoping they prove me and my theory of the case wrong.