Michael Mantha’s News from the Park – Greenbelt Debacle: Willful omission, unrepentant and no remorse

Regular readers of this column are accustomed to me relating events and issues at Queen’s Park to everyday experiences that I find myself in, be they personal or professional. I think, in a way, the writing style compliments the way I approach my job. It is one of the things I do to stay focused, grounded and in touch with the people of Algoma-Manitoulin. This week, however, what I want to highlight has no parallel or precedent with anything I have experienced before in my 12 years of elected office. I find what is happening in Queen’s Park not only disappointing but, in some ways, unnerving. What Ontarians are witnessing is best described as blatant political audacity.

I am, of course, referring to the report released by the Auditor General last week on the changes to the Greenbelt. Readers will remember that in the fall of 2022, Premier Ford and Housing Minister Steve Clark announced that several thousand acres of land would be removed from the Greenbelt and developed. At the time, this decision raised the ire of many across the province for the audacity alone of putting the fate of lands set aside for prime agricultural, natural heritage and sensitive ecosystem protection into the hands of private developers. Now, with the conclusion of the Auditor General’s (AG’s) work, we know that the real story is much worse.

On the day the AG released her published findings, she explained publicly and to the media that she fully anticipated using her standard value-for-money process to review how the government determined which parts of the Greenbelt should be made available for housing development. However, it quickly became apparent that the government’s process was anything but typical. Therefore, a deeper investigative approach from her office would be necessary to make fully informed determinations. The AG went to great lengths stressing that the selection of these Greenbelt lands was a mere “exercise” and that the parcels of land that this government ended up removing were (almost) all hand-picked by the developers who benefited from their removal.

The report places a great deal of the burden for this “truncated, flawed and biased process” (to paraphrase the AG) on Minister Clark’s chief of staff, saying that he led the exercises and asked public servants to continually change the selection criteria to fit with the parcels of land developers had handed him. In fact, 14 of the 15 parcels removed by Premier Ford’s cabinet were handed to this chief of staff at a dinner hosted by the development industry. This amounted to over 90% of the land that suddenly became vastly more valuable. In the end, this decision resulted in protections being lifted for over 400 acres of woodlands and wetlands. 76 percent of the land was being used for agriculture as recently as 2022, and the vast majority of that land was classified as the highest quality agricultural land in the province.

Setting aside, for the moment, the importance of the land as well as the vital services it has long provided to our province, the truly astonishing aspect of this whole debacle is that private developers were able to gain access to Ontario ministry officials to enrich themselves personally. No one in good conscience can call such practices aboveboard.

The Auditor General made 15 recommendations in her report to remedy this miscarriage of public policy. The Premier has promised to accept 14 of them, which relate to processes that should (and often are) already in place across the public service to ensure proper review of all decision-making. However, to date, Mr. Ford has refused even to entertain the idea of starting this process over again to ensure it is done right.

And here is the most galling part of the whole affair. To me, that a government can be caught allowing developers to put their hands in the public’s cookie jar and then take no steps to provide remedy for that outcome leaves me absolutely incredulous. Not only are the Premier and Minister refusing to review the decision, but no consequences have been mentioned for this rogue chief of staff and the minister, who has a responsibility to the public to keep his portfolio running smoothly.

The idea that a minister is responsible for his staff and their actions is Civics 101. To leave out any repercussions for bad actors and to refuse a review of a bad decision smacks of arrogance, hubris, and disdain for the Ontario public.

Please make no mistake that this decision was based on recent circumstances or came about because it was the only way to resolve the housing crisis. The Toronto Star, in its Aug 12, 2023 issue, reminded readers that during the 2018 PC leadership campaign, then-candidate Doug Ford was caught saying that he would “open a big chunk” of the Greenbelt if he became Premier. The Star quoted Mr. Ford saying, ‘I’ve already talked to some of the biggest developers in the country, and, again, I wish I could say it’s my idea, but it was their idea as well.’”

However, when word leaked out of Candidate Ford’s comments, he immediately promised Ontarians he would not touch the Greenbelt as premier. He was again quoted, “The people have spoken. I’m going to listen to them; they don’t want me to touch the Greenbelt. We won’t touch the Greenbelt. Simple as that.”

In the end, Premier Ford’s true colours, denied initially, are now shining through. He broke his promise to the people of Ontario and is proving to be defiantly unrepentant. He claims the dire need for housing development justifies his government’s ignoring standard policies and legislation. This is not responsible leadership. The people of Ontario deserve so much better.

There is still time for Premier Ford and his government to prove this whole affair was, as they claim, a mistake made in an earnest attempt to build housing. They can reverse the changes by order of cabinet at any moment. The housing minister can be held accountable for his negligence, and his chief of staff can be removed from his position of responsibility. In a case as extreme as this, it is also incumbent on the Premier to recall the Legislature before its set return to allow public scrutiny of his government.

So far, all these steps are noticeably absent from the Premier’s agenda, and the Ontario public will draw their conclusions about whether this government is as sorry as they claim. Such actions would at least show some semblance of respect for the power the people of Ontario have entrusted to them rather than a game in which the object is to form government to see how much they can benefit supporters of their team. Taking the high road is the only way to regain the trust and respect of the Ontarians.

As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at my new address, mmantha-co@ola.org or by phone Toll-free at 1-800-831-1899.       

Michael Mantha MPP/député       


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