The path out of Ontario Premier Doug’s policy dogpile is reasonably straightforward and clear. It is contained within the details of the scorching report on the Ontario government’s Greenbelt dealings, which outgoing provincial auditor general Bonnie Lysyk delivered on Aug. 9.
Recommendation number 14 among her report’s 15 recommendations is that Premier Ford’s government “re-evaluate the 2022 decision to change the Greenbelt boundaries.”
They can make an excuse for doing the right thing. Both Ford and Steve Clark, his minister of municipal affairs and housing, claim that they were not aware that preselected properties within the Greenbelt were being essentially gift-wrapped by non-elected government staff members to be parcelled out for development.
The process “was biased, controlled and directed by the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff (a political public servant) rather than informed by environmental, agricultural and infrastructure considerations,” Lysyk said. Ford and Clark can say they were misinformed, and they have an opportunity to fix this mess.
Will they though? We’ll see. Until now, the Ford government has been heading in the other direction, away from consultation and public accountability.
Despite public promises — on video — by the Ontario premier that the government would protect the Greenbelt lands from development, “in June 2022, the Premier ordered [Clark] to ‘complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt’,” Lysyk reported.
“By December 2022, the government had decided to open specific land sites in the Greenbelt for housing development,” she said.
“We found that how the land sites were selected was not transparent, fair, objective, or fully informed. It also can be shown that there was sufficient land for the target of 1.5 million homes to be built without the need to build on the Greenbelt.”
Discouraging response, excuses
Ford’s response so far is not encouraging. He answers these searing disclosures by promising to adhere to Lysyk’s recommendations — but not the all-important Recommendation 14, which calls for rethinking the Greenbelt grab.
Ford offers a lame, misleading defence that the 7,400 acres his government took out of the Greenbelt for a few developers is needed to build 50,000 homes. No one is really buying this argument.
The auditor’s findings reinforce numerous studies showing that the damage Ford and Clark intend for the Greenbelt has nothing to do with providing affordable housing. And Lysyk herself determined explicitly that there is enough land to build all the homes Ontario needs — and we do need them — without handing over Greenbelt land.
She also found that 83 per cent of the land to be removed from protection is prime farmland, and about 1,000 acres are wetlands or woods.
It appears that Ford has a choice. It may be that some well-paid crisis communication professionals are telling him to stay the course. Keep changing the subject by talking about the need for housing — which is different than protecting the Greenbelt — and go ahead with the plan to turn over farms, forests and wetlands to sprawl.
That’s bad public relations advice and probably bad political advice too.
If this course is followed, Ford, with Clark’s help, will be well on the way to establishing his legacy as “the premier who destroyed the Greenbelt.”
With roughly two years remaining before the next election, does he want this to be how he is remembered? Polls show an overwhelming majority of Ontarians — including his Progressive Conservative supporters — want the Greenbelt protected.
So why not protect it? By doing so, Ford would actually be keeping the public promise he made in the first place to do so.
He can refer to the auditor general’s report and say that the process for allowing the Greenbelt to be harmed was flawed. His staff let him down. He didn’t have all the facts. Now he can fix it.
The auditor general’s report is a great service to Ontario; her greatest gift may be the way out she offers the premier … for the people.
David Israelson is a writer and non-practising lawyer who lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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