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Doug Ford’s failed grab for the Greenbelt

Clarke: The crudeness and impropriety of Ford’s approach have blown up in his face

Canadian PoliticsEnvironmentHousing

Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Photo from Facebook.

As a right-wing conservative, Doug Ford has some things in common with Margaret Thatcher, but with a very significant difference: while Thatcher could fairly describe herself as “not for turning,” Ford is less steadfast in the face of major challenges. His crass capitulation over plans to hand a portion of the Greenbelt to his developer friends is evidence of this.

After weeks of forging ahead with his ‘rural sprawl’ agenda,’ with ministers being forced out and scandalous details emerging by the hour, we were treated to a contrite about-face. Ford declared, “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. It was a wrong decision. We’re putting this land back in the Greenbelt.”

Ford had indeed promised to preserve the Greenbelt. In 2021 he declared: We’re expanding the Greenbelt. We will not build on the Greenbelt. We’ll make sure we protect the Greenbelt.” However, he’s no stickler for consistency and, two years later, the “so-called Greenbelt” had been downgraded to “a flawed policy from the Liberal government” that was “just a big scam” in his view.

Ford’s actual intentions were most convincingly set out before he became premier. In 2018, a video surfaced of him offering developers an assurance that they would get their paws on the Greenbelt. At the time he claimed that he’d “already talked to some of the biggest developers in this country,” and, he continued, “I wish I could say it was my idea, but it was their idea as well. Give us property and we’ll build and we’ll drive the cost down.”

The grab

When the time came to deliver, Ford’s Bill 23 was predictably presented as a viable response to the housing crisis. With this measure, as The Narwhal noted, “the Ford government finalized its plan to take 15 snippets of Greenbelt land out of the protected area, totalling 7,400 acres.”

In the political drama that ensued, it became abundantly clear that the seizing of protected land couldn’t be justified in terms of meeting the need for housing. The Ontario government’s own Housing Affordability Task Force has noted, “A shortage of land isn’t the cause of the problem. Land is available, both inside the existing built-up areas and on undeveloped land outside greenbelts.”

The simple reality is that Ontario’s developers have always opposed the Greenbelt and looked for ways to build on it. The present situation reflects their pursuit of this objective and the vigorous efforts of their political enablers to give them what they want.

As Emma McIntosh writes in a piece for The Narwhal, “Soon after the Ford Conservatives announced their plans, a joint investigation by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star “revealed six developers bought Greenbelt land now slated for development since… 2018.” Eight of the 15 chunks of land included properties that these developers had acquired.

In August, auditor-general Bonnie Lysyk released the findings of her investigation into what had now become a major political scandal. As The Narwhal reported, she concluded that Ryan Amato, Housing Minister Steve Clark’s chief of staff, had “substantially controlled and directed the process of removing protected areas from Ontario’s Greenbelt, giving ‘preferential treatment’ to a group of developers.”

According to The Narwhal, Lysyk was informed that Amato “was working under the authority of the housing minister and the premier’s office.” She also found that “Direct access to the housing minister’s chief of staff resulted in certain prominent developers receiving preferential treatment.” She was informed that Amato “was working under the authority of the housing minister and the premier’s office.”

The Narwhal further reported Lysyk’s finding that “developers that own the majority of protected lands opened are set to collectively see a property value increase of nearly $8.3 billion.” Moreover, this profit bonanza comes at the price of habitat and biodiversity destruction with the loss of 1,000 acres of wetlands and woodlands, representing a threat to at least 29 species at risk.”

Meanwhile, Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake had unearthed his own crop of irregularities. According to a CBC News report, a “mysterious development consultant… identified only as ‘Mr. X’ was one of two consultants hired by landowner Peter Tanenbaum to work on getting about 34 hectares of land… removed from the Greenbelt and rezoned to permit development.” The CBC report added that Wake indicated that Mr. X, who was subsequently identified as former Mayor of Clarington John Mutton “may have engaged in unregistered lobbying and other potential lobbying violations while doing that work.”

This level of overt corruption could only result in a deepening scandal. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) gingerly handed the investigation of the matter over to their federal counterparts in the RCMP. Amato was forced from his job in short order but any hopes that this might be enough to contain things were rapidly dashed. By early September, Housing Minister Clark had to come forward as a more substantial fall guy.

In dutifully announcing his resignation at the beginning of September, Clark stated, “I realize that my presence will only cause a further distraction from the important work that needs to be done and that I need to take accountability for what has transpired.” Even the housing minister’s fall from grace, however, wouldn’t be enough to subdue the political storm.

Viva Las Vegas

Just a few weeks later, Kaleed Rasheed, Ford’s minister of public and business service delivery, had to resign from the cabinet and withdraw from the Conservative caucus after “news reports raised questions about his connections to a developer.” The integrity commissioner had investigated reports that Rasheed had taken a trip to Las Vegas with both Amin Massoudi, then Ford’s principal secretary, and developer Shakir Rehmatullah.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Rasheed insists that his encounter with Rehmatullah during the trip was fleeting and a matter of chance. However, it speaks to the social composition of the Ford government that the former minister has acknowledged that “he and Rehmatullah are close friends and [his] wife worked for the developer.”

Then, on September 22, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton declared his intention to jump ship and take a position in the private sector. Whatever the enticing possibilities on McNaughton’s career path, it is hard to imagine that the distinctly unhelpful timing of this announcement was coincidental.

Having a place at Ford’s cabinet table was increasingly becoming a liability, as things spun out of control. By the time the premier went before the cameras to try to save face and ask for forgiveness, staying the course was simply no longer an option. Ford’s grab for the Greenbelt had been conducted with such reckless disregard for established protocols and procedures that there was no choice but to abandon it.

A few conclusions may be drawn in the wake of Ford’s about-face. Firstly, even by the low standards of parliamentary politics, Ford is particularly untrustworthy. He has offered assurances but we have yet to see Bill 23 repealed and, with a posse of disgruntled developers on his heels, Ford will be looking for ways to appease them.

Ford’s giveaway of Ontario Place to private interests to develop a spa and water park is still going ahead. He has refused to back down on plans to expand Hamilton’s urban boundary to include land owned by well-connected developers, who will now be able to build housing on the 2,200 hectares of countryside being opened up for development.

It’s a sure bet that Ford will pursue his regressive agenda as long as he remains in power, whatever occasional panicked retreat he may be forced into along the way.

There has been a storm of opposition to Bill 23 that has included a wave of protests and these efforts have contributed greatly to the Conservative backflip on the Greenbelt. However, Ford’s failure can’t be explained simply in terms of a defeat in the face of popular mobilization.

Ford is very much a right-wing populist and his “Ford Nation” antics are not the stuff of the old patrician Conservative establishment. His popularity with the base of the party won him the role of leader but his qualifications for the job were always somewhat shaky.

The Greenbelt debacle isn’t the first example of Ford’s lack of judgement, but this time his disregard for the established norms of ‘responsible government’ have produced a major scandal. The Ford government is far from alone in pursuing the commodification of housing with scant regard for environmental protections. However, the crudeness and impropriety of Ford’s approach have blown up in his face.

Ford is seriously weakened and his legitimacy is at very low ebb. He may muddle through for some time yet or the Conservative inner circle may determine that a more credible and competent outfit is essential. Either way, the immediate crisis will recede, the regressive agenda Ford represents will persist, and the struggle to defeat it is very far from over.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at johnclarkeblog.com.

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