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Greenbelt scandal: What does “accountability” mean?

There’s no sign that anybody will face real consequences for the $10 billion giveaway

August 11, 2023

3-minute read

It looks like a lot of us got it wrong on the Greenbelt scandal.

Until lately, many Ontarians assumed that developers were somehow “tipped off” about which lands the Ford government was planning to remove from Greenbelt protection. As it turns out, though, it didn’t work that way at all. As provincial Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk reported Wednesday, at least two developers met last fall with the chief of staff to Housing Minister Steve Clark and gave him “packages” indicating which properties they wanted removed.

“Direct access to the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff resulted in certain prominent developers receiving preferential treatment. About 92 per cent of the approximately 7,400 acres ultimately removed from the Greenbelt are five land sites put forward by two developers,” Lysyk wrote.

In other words, the developers didn’t need to be tipped off. They knew about the plan all along—because they created it.

Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, trotted back to Queen’s Park and, in a rushed process, created a plan to remove 15 parcels of land from the Greenbelt. The process, which Lysyk said was “designed to be swift and confidential,” did not involve consultation with other ministries, municipalities, Indigenous communities, or conservation authorities.

If they had known about the scheme, all of those entities would have been waving red flags and screaming blue murder. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs might have objected to the paving over of 4,700 acres of prime farmland. Municipalities in the area might have noted that they already have more than enough land available to meet the province’s home-building targets (“a shortage of land isn’t the cause of the problem,” the government’s own task force said last year). First Nations would have mentioned their treaty rights in the area and the constitutional Duty to Consult. Conservation authorities would have stood up for the 29 species at risk that currently live on that part of the Greenbelt.

None of that happened.

The result? According to the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, rezoning those Greenbelt lands will likely increase their value by $8.28 billion. And that’s based on 2016 property values. The present-day value can only be much, much higher—according to Statistics Canada’s New Housing Price Index, the price of land under new homes has gone up 25 per cent in Ontario since then. So $8.28 billion in 2016 is easily worth north of $10 billion today.

This is value—public value, for all the reasons the Greenbelt is valuable—that the Ford government has handed over to a half-handful of privately held companies.

In his news conference Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford and minister Clark both denied any knowledge of how their government chose the parcels of land.

Ryan Amato acted alone. That’s their story.

Reporters weren’t buying it. “It’s hard to believe you would not know what your chief of staff was doing on such a big file,” as one put it. “How did you not know?”

It was a good question, especially given that $10 billion is such a massive amount of money—for comparison, the entire budget of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, which the minister is responsible for, is less than $1.5 billion.

“The minister ought to have known” what his chief of staff was doing, the auditor general wrote in her report. He says he did not, and that the government was moving so fast in its haste to build more homes that it overlooked certain details.

The auditor general made 15 recommendations in her report, and the government says it gratefully accepts 14 of them and will take action to implement them immediately. But there is one recommendation they will not accept. The auditor general called on the government to “re-evaluate the 2022 decision to change the Greenbelt boundaries.” The government refuses to do so.

The government’s view, apparently, is that a flawed process produced a very satisfactory outcome.

It didn’t. Under the government’s plan, farms (Ford calls them “empty fields”) will be bulldozed; marshes will be drained and filled in, destroying habitat and affecting water quality; and a few rich people stand to gain $10 billion or so.

In their news conference, Premier Ford and his minister were quick to take responsibility for what had happened.

“As premier, the buck stops with me, and I take full responsibility for a better process,” Ford said.

But what does that even mean?

In our political system, voters have few levers available to hold politicians accountable. Mostly, we vote every four years and hope for the best.

But within our parliamentary traditions, politicians do have a way to show that they hold themselves to a high standard of public service: when they or the staff they supervise make serious mistakes, they resign.

At this point, there’s no sign that that’s going to happen with the Greenbelt scandal.

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