Doug Ford handed the Greenbelt to his donors — but does the public even care?
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 Sylvio De Gasparis— 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.
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 used to be a provincial political story, 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.
Danielle Smith can’t quit natural gas
It’s been less than a week since Danielle Smith’s UCP government unexpectedly cut the legs out from under her province’s burgeoning wind and solar industry, and Albertans have already been exposed to at least five different explanations of why. At first, it was about the prospect of unfunded environmental liabilities down the road. Then it was about protecting fertile agricultural land from being converted into wind and solar, and avoiding the apparent blight of wind turbines on the landscape. The integrity of the province’s electrical grid, and the prospect of it failing during a winter cold snap, was the next argument offered up by the premier. Finally, and perhaps most outrageously, it was about concerns over unsafe conditions and the use of unskilled labour expressed by a local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
In each case, Smith’s argument falls apart at even the faintest application of critical pressure. And, in an irony that should be apparent to anyone who’s actually paid attention, the oil and gas industry scores far worse on each issue. It has many billions in environmental liabilities that keep piling up, continues to leave toxic wells rotting in rural farmers’ fields, blights the landscape with its own infrastructure and struggles with safety issues that have resulted in multiple deaths of workers over the years. And when it comes to catastrophic failures like the one that nearly knocked the entire Texas grid offline during a winter storm in February 2021, it’s usually fossil fuels like natural gas that are the real culprit.
These are all distractions, though. The real reason why her government decided to salt the metaphorical fields in which wind and solar projects were thriving is because they directly threaten Alberta’s natural gas industry. More dangerously, perhaps, they threaten the worldview Smith and her supporters are clinging to so desperately these days, one in which demand for fossil fuels will grow indefinitely and exporting LNG is a viable approach to reducing emissions in Alberta.
This is a dream that just won’t die. As Rob Anderson, Smith’s right-hand man and former caucus colleague, said in a 2021 interview: We’re sitting on an ocean of natural gas and all this [wind and solar] is….it’s a scam. It’s a way that a German company has found to come in here and use the carbon credit process and the funding that’s made available to them from government to make a buck. This isn’t about the environment. It has nothing to do with the environment. If it did, they could make a far bigger difference by investing in LNG and getting it over to Asia.”
Smith paid homage to this argument in her recent interview with CBC’s The House, suggesting Alberta’s oil and gas industry was in the business of providing affordable energy for people — and wanted to do it for the developing world as well. ”It is our obligation, I believe, to help everyone in the world to increase their living standards and use cleaner and cleaner fuels.” Never mind that the global benchmark for gas-fired electricity is now double the cost of onshore wind and solar, or that imports of Alberta’s oil and gas in the developing world would be even more expensive than that.
There’s also the more basic contradiction here, which is that an industry that depends on higher prices for its products is somehow trying to help lower them. This is like saying McDonald’s is in the business of providing healthy meals to working-class families, or that Telus and Rogers exist to lower the cost of wireless bills for Canadians. They’re all corporations, and they all exist to do one thing: maximize profits for shareholders.
The good news here, if there is any, is that the rest of the world isn’t going to entertain Danielle Smith’s delusions here. Developing countries aren’t about to import Alberta’s oil and gas any time soon, especially when there are far cheaper options located much closer. They’re also going to develop as much home-grown energy as possible, which means — you guessed it — wind and solar. And even if Canada manages to get another LNG project on the board in British Columbia, the emissions reductions associated with that will accrue to the country where they actually happen. Canada isn’t about to get credit for them, and Alberta really isn’t about to, given that the gas mostly comes out of the ground in and gets exported from British Columbia.
At some point, this fever dream will have to break. The danger, of course, is that by the time it does Alberta will have done so much damage to its own renewable energy economy that it won’t be able to catch up with other competitors, much less take the lead. As demand for oil and then natural gas begins to roll off, as every reputable forecasting agency has suggested in its scenarios that don’t involve complete inaction on climate change, so too will prices — and profits. If Alberta hasn’t gotten a handle on its massive environmental liability problem by then, the public is going to get stuck with the entire stinking mess.
If we could harness all the energy tied up in wailing about LNG in this country, we could go net-zero overnight. Instead, the ongoing fetish that conservatives in Canada — and especially in Alberta — have for it is going to make reaching that goal even harder than it already is. They can’t quit the idea that demand for their preferred product won’t rise indefinitely, and nobody, no matter how learned or informed, can tell them otherwise. When the market finally does, of course, people like Danielle Smith will blame the federal Liberals for the ensuing carnage. But on some level, even they will know the real culprit is staring back at them in the mirror.
The carbon tax communications breakdown continues
I know I’m a bit of a broken record on this subject, but I remain both fascinated and frustrated by the federal government’s inability to sell its signature policy to the public. A recent poll by Nanos Research showed two-thirds of Canadians think now is “poor timing” or “very poor” timing for an increase in the carbon tax, one that’s been scheduled and on the books for years now. Those numbers are predictably worse in the Prairies, but they’re also bad in Atlantic Canada, where the Liberals have been very strong over the last eight years.
Worse, the public’s support for carbon pricing seems to be deteriorating. “Compared to 2019 (36 per cent), more Canadians say they believe that higher gas prices from a carbon tax aren’t an effective way to reduce fuel consumption (45 per cent),” a CTV story on the poll noted. “In 2019, Nanos found that 16 per cent of Canadians believecd carbon taxes were effective at reducing fuel consumption and 26 per cent believed they were somewhat effective. Today, only nine per cent say carbon taxes are an effective strategy and 23 per cent say they are somewhat effective.”
This is obviously a result of the non-stop fearmongering and disinformation being spread by various conservative politicians and pundits, and it speaks to the success of their campaign. But it also speaks to the weakness of the government’s own efforts here, ones that have been — at best — halting and inconsistent. This cake is largely baked at this point, I think, and the Trudeau Liberals are going to have to keep eating it. They can only hope that the carbon tax ends up like GST one day: disliked by most Canadians but accepted as a permanent part of the political and economic landscape.
That’s not exactly the win Trudeau and his team had in mind back when they first floated their climate plan. But right now, not losing is about as good as they can probably hope for. The lessons here should be clear: if you’re designing ambitious public policy, remember that the endorsement of economists and other experts isn’t the boon you might think. And never, ever underestimate the ability of your opponents to muddy the waters and confuse the issue in the name of partisan gain.
Good News of the Week
I’ll be honest, folks: I’m drawing a blank here this week when it comes to Canada, and especially Alberta. But I’m heartened by the news out of Ohio, which saw voters reject a ballot measure that would have made it much more difficult to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution come November. The repeal of Roe v. Wade is a catastrophe on any number of levels, but it may yet keep Donald Trump out of office in 2024 — and save global climate policy from the revenge of a coal-fired narcissist.
As I said earlier, I can’t stop writing about this ludicrous anti-wind and solar decision in Alberta — and I suspect I won’t for a while yet. Last week, I offered up my first take on the situation, while yesterday I dug into what sort of federal response is required here. But rest assured: if you think things can’t get any dumber, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
That’s all for this week. As always, I’m happy to receive your letters or tweets, and I’d be delighted if you shared this newsletter with friends and colleagues.