Erosion of support among Doug Ford’s conservative base leads to Greenbelt reversal
On August 1, the Ontario Auditor General published her report on the Greenbelt Plan, determining certain developers were favoured and placing the value of the scandal at $8.3 billion. In the aftermath, former chief of staff for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Ryan Amato, implicated in secretive dealings, resigned on his own. Premier Doug Ford did nothing.
On August 30, Integrity Commissioner David J. Wake published his investigation report into the events leading up to the Greenbelt removals, determining former minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark breached ethical conduct rules. Clark resigned on his own. Ford did nothing.
On September 20, after reports of disturbing connections between one of the developers that stood to benefit from the Greenbelt swaps and Mississauga East-Cooksville MPP Kaleed Rasheed, who was minister of Public and Business Service Delivery, he resigned on his own. Ford did nothing.
On September 21, after the resignation of two cabinet ministers and a senior bureaucrat, Ford finally acted. He announced the 14 parcels of land slated to be bulldozed for homes, at a value of around $8 billion to developers, would be returned to the Greenbelt.
“It was a mistake to open the Greenbelt. It was a mistake to establish a process that moved too fast,” the Premier stated in a press conference held in Niagara Thursday. “As a first step to earn back your trust, I will be reversing the changes to the Greenbelt and won’t be making any changes in the future. Because even if you do something for the right reasons with the best intentions, it can still be wrong.”
The admission of wrongdoing and reversal of the Greenbelt decision have raised questions about Ford’s motives and why, almost two months after the auditor general report and after three resignations, he finally caved to mounting public pressure.
“This just raises even more questions about what the hell happened and what's going on, including the almost daily revelations in terms of other ministers resigning and other questionable things that we didn't know,” Victor Doyle, a former senior planner with the Ontario government, widely known as the architect of the Greenbelt Act, told The Pointer.
If nothing changed after the damning reports from the province’s own accountability offices, why did Ford finally relent?
The first clue came two weeks ago when the Angus Reid Institute’s latest poll showed Ford's approval rating had plummeted to 28 percent, from 45 percent when he was reelected in June of last year, and the loss of support was largely due to Ontarians who had voted for him now reporting they could no longer do so.
Some close to the Greenbelt scandal question if Ford and the PCs understood the consequences of his land swap scheme.
“I don't think they've changed their philosophy about the Greenbelt at all,” Doyle said.
Since the decision to remove 15 parcels of land from the Greenbelt was made in November, questions have been raised about whether developers were tipped off and where Premier Ford’s loyalties really lie.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Throughout his time in office, Ford has made his feelings about the Greenbelt clear, calling it a “scam” and a “field of weeds” on multiple occasions.
Even when Ford grabbed headlines with his announcement, he said opening up the Greenbelt would provide an unprecedented opportunity to get more homes built. The Province’s own Housing Accountability Task Force has shown there is already enough land in Ontario zoned for housing to provide the 1.5 million homes the PCs have vowed to get built by 2031. When asked if he now sees the value of the Greenbelt, he deflected, stating that now the Greenbelt will increase in size by 9,400 acres.
He insisted he is listening to the public.
“When I make a mistake, I will fix them and I will learn from them. Because that’s what I promised I would do,” he said. “And in the next election, you'll have the chance to decide how I’ve done. If I kept my promises, if I got it done.”
On Wednesday, the day before Ford finally felt compelled to abandon his miscalculated Greenbelt Plan, he attended the 2023 International Plowing Match and Rural Expo in Dufferin County, a riding that is strongly PC and held by MPP Sylvia Jones, the Deputy Premier and Minister of Health. But Ford faced a strong backlash and criticism at the event over his Greenbelt decision.
His base, as polls have indicated, was peeling away, with many at the farming event publicly stating they could not vote for him again because of his plan to pave over some of the most fertile agricultural land in the country.
The next day, he scrapped the entire scheme.
“Clearly with this government there are very few that are feeling well served. Life is much harder for most people than it was since they took power,” Margaret Prophet, executive director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, told The Pointer. “The flip flops and the backtracking suggest that this is simply an act to retain power since we have several instances of him on tape demonstrating this loath for the Greenbelt and all it stands for. Whether he likes it or not, the Greenbelt is something Ontarians are proud of and protective over — he is beholden to that regardless of other deals that have been made behind closed doors.”
Doug Ford at an agricultural event in Dufferin County Wednesday. Ontario is already losing 319 acres of farmland per day. Cutting into the Greenbelt would pave over farmland contributing to food insecurity in the province.
(Government of Ontario)
While Ford did not mention anything about housing or the environment in his speech at the agricultural event Wednesday in Dufferin County, attendees rallied with their “Keep your hands off the Greenbelt” signs, and opposition leaders did not shy away from the topic.
“Farmland like this is one of our most precious resources," Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles said, to appreciative applause. "And I know and you know that those farmlands are at risk."
The next day Ford seemed to have finally received the message, after it came from the core of his base.
“I made a promise to you that I wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise. And for that, I am very, very sorry.”
In 2018, prior to being first elected, a video was leaked of Ford promising a room full of developers that he would open up a “large chunk” of the Greenbelt for development. A series of secretive communications and developer-driven land swaps was revealed in the Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner reports.
Reversing the Greenbelt decision removed nearly $8.3 billion of value from the books of some of the nation’s most wealthy developers. It is unknown what the repercussions of this will be on the government but Ford promised Thursday that Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra would work on agreements with the developers and he would make those public.
Doyle said he is still very concerned about the review by Calandra of all Greenbelt lands. Ford addressed the review in his press conference and stated that regardless of the findings, he would not touch the Greenbelt. Doyle remains cautious stating that a review is not due for years so he is suspicious of why it needs to take place now.
“They've already shown a bias towards removing lands,” he said. “It would be very disingenuous to use the review to basically create a new process to look at these lands that were removed and now are supposed to be put back in and the government saying, ‘Oh, no, this is a brand new, open, transparent process and we're looking at all lands including the recent ones.’”
Protests against Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass have been organized since Doug Ford’s PC government reignited the projects in its first term.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Other experts remain wary of Ford’s end goal.
“Like a truant student, he has apologized for skipping school, but not for burning down the police station while he was running about,” Andrew McCammon, executive director of the Ontario Headwaters Institute, told The Pointer. “He appears to not understand the impact of his broader actions on Bill 23, putting expressways through the Greenbelt, wrecking normal planning with Minister Zoning Orders, saying that houses need to be built quickly without regard for energy efficiency, and ignoring reports of expert panels that he appointed on housing and climate change.”
At the press conference, Ford reaffirmed his commitment to building Highway 413, the Bradford Bypass and extending Highway 7, three projects that have faced widespread opposition from the public.
For groups who have stood in opposition to these planned mega highways, the successful Greenbelt backlash offers hope.
“We have a collective forgetfulness about how democracy and people power brought us to where we are,” Prophet said. “Whether it be maternity leave, minimum wage increases, daycare subsidization, OHIP, environmental protections or public education — all of these things came from people organizing and demanding better. Politicians may want us to think that it was a gift from the government, but really it has always been people who pushed for those changes and made governments act.”
She emphasized the importance of public participation and holding government’s accountable, and when asked if she believed Ford learned his lesson, responded: “I hope that he has learned his place in democracy.”
The RCMP is still undertaking a review of the Greenbelt land swaps which could launch a full scale investigation around the scandal.
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