The Ontario government’s now-cancelled decision to build housing on protected land has claimed the jobs of two cabinet ministers and seen the government cut ties with three senior political staffers.
Recent polls show the Greenbelt controversy has weakened support for Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives, but it remains to be seen how much lasting damage the attempt might cause to Ford himself, even though he appears to have ordered it.
One political observer says he’s likely to survive the crisis given that he’s apologized and reversed course, but political scientists and a former Liberal cabinet minister say, regardless, the responsibility for initiating the policy and allowing it through cabinet lies with him.
Policymaking at Ontario’s cabinet level has, in general, evolved over the years, says Nelson Wiseman, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Toronto. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that the premier sets the agenda and is responsible for any decisions.
“Nothing goes to cabinet without the premier wanting it to be at cabinet,” Wiseman told CBC News.
“The ultimate responsibility here is with the premier.”
The controversy ignited when the province removed 2,995 hectares of land across 15 sites from the Greenbelt last year and added about 3,804 hectares elsewhere — to comply with legislation stating the total size of its protected area cannot be reduced.
The government claimed the land was needed to meet its goal of building 1.5 million homes in 10 years.
But it broke a campaign promise by Ford — made when he first ran in 2018 — that the PCs “won’t touch” the Greenbelt if elected.
Reports from Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk and Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake — both released in August — found that the process to select lands was rushed, biased and favoured certain developers.
Lysyk’s investigation found the government’s process for choosing which sites to remove was influenced by a small number of well-connected real estate developers with access to Amato, who personally selected 14 of the 15 sites that were to be removed from the Greenbelt.
Clark and Amato have both since resigned. So did Minister of Public and Business Service Delivery Kaleed Rasheed and Jae Truesdell, director of housing policy for Ford’s office. The Ford government also said it would also stop working with Amin Massoudi, a former staffer who now runs a consulting firm.
Ford and his staffers have maintained they were only looped in late in the process and all denied knowing how the sites were selected. The integrity commissioner agreed that the premier’s office was “kept in the dark.”
But the process got started with Ford’s mandate letter to Clark in 2022, in which the premier, newly re-elected to a second term, told his housing minister to “complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt,” by that fall.
The mandate caught both Clark and Amato off guard, according to Wake’s report. Amato said he and Clark both agreed that altering the Greenbelt is “something we’re probably never going to do.”
They realized the government was “very serious” about it, Amato told the commissioner, after a September 2022 meeting attended by only themselves, Ford and Patrick Sackville, Ford’s principal secretary at the time who is now his chief of staff.
Wiseman says, as premier, Ford is responsible.
“For him to say, ‘I didn’t understand the process [of selecting sites]’ — that’s nonsense, because those are the kinds of things … you could have asked about at the cabinet meeting,” he said.
“It all goes back to the premier, because the premier has ultimate control.”
According to the auditor general’s report, the proposal voted on by cabinet that led to the would-be Greenbelt removals did not clearly explain how the sites were identified, assessed and selected.
Ted McMeekin, a former housing minister under Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government, says, based on his experience, there’s no way the Greenbelt decision would have passed if Ford didn’t approve.
“It’s clear from the way cabinet works that there would have been approval vis-à-vis implementation and follow through on mandate letters,” said McMeekin, now a city councillor in Hamilton.
“It is inconceivable to me that Ford … wasn’t aware of what was happening.”
Ford has said he doesn’t believe in “micromanaging” his ministers.
But a claim of ignorance is still a problem, says Christopher Cochrane, associate professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.
“It should be disconcerting for any group of citizens in a democracy to have the leader of a government say that they were completely in the dark and unaware of what was happening on their most important policy file,” Cochrane said.
“I think it’s reasonable for people to ask the question of who exactly is governing the province.”
When announcing his reversal, Ford said he was sorry for breaking his promise and that it was a “mistake” to establish a process that moved too fast and “left too much room for some people to benefit over others.”
He has since maintained the about-face showed leadership, and that his government will meet its housing target
Whether the PCs will be able to change the channel remains to be seen.
Opposition leaders have been raising the issue daily in question period since the legislature returned last week, calling for further investigations, including a public inquiry or from a legislative committee. The RCMP is determining whether it should investigate.
Amanda Galbraith, principal at the crisis communications firm Navigator, says Ford and his government have already taken some steps toward accountability by allowing ministers and staffers to “fall on their swords.”
She also says the scandal hasn’t risen to the level that would require Ford to resign, and that he is “uniquely positioned” to apologize and change course.
“He’s one of the few politicians in the country, I think, that is sort of able to do that jujitsu move and say, ‘Oh, shucks, I’m sorry.’ And people kind of accept it,” Galbraith said.
Galbraith says, ultimately, Ontario voters will decide whether to punish Ford at the next election.
“I think the people that already don’t like this government, this further entrenches them, and I think for the broad spectrum of folks, it’s problematic, but it probably wouldn’t flip them firmly one way or the other,” she said.