The past few weeks have witnessed an extraordinary series of events in Ontario politics. Reports tabled by the province’s auditor general and its integrity commissioner on the government’s November 2022 decision to remove 7,400 acres of land from the Greater Toronto Area’s Greenbelt have set off a political firestorm.
The controversy has resulted in the resignation of Housing Minister Steve Clark and his chief of staff and angry protesters greeting Premier Doug Ford in Kitchener, Ont., when he arrived for the annual Ford Fest under heavy police escort.
The auditor general found that normal decision-making processes related to the Greenbelt had been bypassed, that it was well-established there was no need to remove land from the Greenbelt for housing purposes and that decisions were “biased” in favour of certain developers who had bought the lands in question and who stood to reap a $8.3 billion windfall from their development.
The integrity commissioner, for his part, described the decision-making process around the Greenbelt removals as “madcap.”
Ford’s government has so far stonewalled on the auditor general’s key recommendation that the removal of the lands from the Greenbelt be “reconsidered.”
In fact, the government seems to be moving in the opposite direction. It is pressuring developers to accelerate construction on the removed lands.
New Housing Minister Paul Calandra is now advancing a wholesale review of the Greenbelt plan. That seems to include consideration of the possibility of further land removals, if not a complete reconsideration of the Greenbelt as a whole.
The government’s response to the situation defies normal political logic. Following the departure of the minister and his chief of staff, a government might have been expected to use the announcement of the Greenbelt review as political cover to back down on the land removals, take further moves on the Greenbelt off the table and then move on from the entire episode.
The Ford government’s emerging double-down approach, by contrast, seems fraught with political and legal risks.
Furthermore, reports expected to be just as damaging are on the horizon. The integrity commissioner will issue a follow-up report at some point over the next year, and so will the auditor general.
Major challenges loom
The RCMP is considering requests to look into whether there’s been any criminal behaviour in relation to the Greenbelt controversy.
Other potential challenges to the legality and procedural correctness of Greenbelt removals loom. Municipal councils may decline to provide or approve the infrastructure needed to support housing development on the Greenbelt since the lands in question were never expected to be developed, and no plans exist for such infrastructure.
There may even be legal action by Indigenous Peoples whose treaty rights and interests may have been infringed upon by the Greenbelt decisions.
The situation begs an explanation of the government’s behaviour in response to the episode. Some have suggested simple stubbornness and a refusal to accept blame, although Ford himself has described the process as flawed.
The role of Ford Nation
There’s a second possibility.
Ontario voters, especially those who are likely to vote for the Ford government (also known as Ford Nation), may simply care more about immediate affordability issues than more abstract notions about evidence-based policymaking, good planning, legal correctness and political accountability.
Public opinion polling on the impact of the Greenbelt episode is still relatively preliminary. There is evidence of relatively high levels of awareness of the Greenbelt scandal, but its political consequences, particularly nearly three years away from the next provincial election, aren’t clear.
The longer-term response may give some indication of whether the government has accurately assessed deeper shifts in Ontario’s political culture, which has traditionally emphasized administrative competence, integrity and moderation.
Beyond its political impact, the Greenbelt episode, and the government’s broader approach to planning and development matters, have left the province’s planning process in discredited shambles.
Once the subject of international acclaim, the Greenbelt debacle has made it starkly apparent that the government’s reforms over the past five years have converted the process into an instrument wielded by the province on behalf of the interests of developers.
The government seems to have no underlying vision for the Greater Toronto Area other than to give the development industry everything it wants and hope that solves the housing crisis.
The industry itself has no vision for the region other than an overriding focus on short-term profit maximization.
Challenges facing the GTA are multidimensional and complex: housing needs, particularly at the lower end of the income scale; structural economic transitions and increasingly polarized labour markets; the impacts of a changing climate; and a growing fiscal crisis, particularly for the City of Toronto, driven in large part by provincial downloading.
Responding to these challenges will require planning and decision-making processes grounded in democratic norms, evidence, transparency and accountability — the very opposite of the Ford government’s modus operandi.