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Greenbelt controversy knocks Ford government off message, experts say

Two independent, legislative watchdogs in successive reports released just weeks apart from each other found major flaws with the province's decision to remove land from the Greenbelt last December to build housing.

2 reports revealed flaws in decision to open protected land for housing development

A sign welcomes people to the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, part of the Greenbelt.

It's been a rough couple weeks for Premier Doug Ford's government.

Two independent, legislative watchdogs — in successive reports released just weeks apart from each other — found major flaws with the province's decision to remove land from the Greenbelt last December to build housing.

On Wednesday, Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake found that Housing Minister Steve Clark chose to "stick his head in the sand" rather than oversee the process of selecting which sites would be removed from the Greenbelt — a vast 810,000-hectare area of protected farmland, forest and wetland stretching from Niagara Falls to Peterborough meant to be permanently off-limits to development.

Instead, Clark left it to his chief of staff at the time, Ryan Amato, whose actions alerted some developers to a potential policy change and resulted in their private interests being improperly advanced, the integrity commissioner found.

That report came just two weeks after Ontario Auditor General Bonie Lysyk's report first revealed how a small group of well-connected developers suggested to Amato many of the sites that would ultimately be removed, providing the landowners with a potential windfall upwards of $8 billion.

Political watchers who spoke to CBC Toronto say the impact of the Greenbelt controversy is putting pressure on the Ford government, and knocking it off its preferred course at a crucial time.

PCs 'caught in a news cycle,' expert says

Mitch Heimpel, director of campaigns and government relations with public affairs firm Enterprise Canada, said the government has been "caught in a news cycle" for the past month that is preventing it from getting its message out.

He said Ford's "big announcement" at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference earlier this month "largely got eaten" by stories related to the Greenbelt controversy. The premier announced there the province would extend "strong mayor" powers to 21 smaller cities and launch a $1.2 billion fund to reward municipalities that meet home-building targets.

At recent events, reporters have asked both Ford and Clark flurries of questions about Greenbelt-related issues, no matter the substance of the announcement.

"It's making it hard for them to get positive news out," Heimpel said.

All three Opposition party leaders have repeatedly called over the past few weeks for the resignation of Clark, who has apologized for the "very real flaws" in the process and for failing to oversee his former chief of staff. Ford has said Clark will keep his job and the government will continue to move forward with its agenda to build 1.5 million homes by 2031.

Heimpel said replacing Clark right now would come with a cost.

On the one hand, Heimpel said, it would demonstrate accountability. But it would also slow down the government while a new minister gets up to speed on the many initiatives underway to spur housing construction and change planning rules across the province.

"That could really hamstring the government's agenda in the fall if they were to change horses now," he said.

More shoes could drop, says professor

Christopher Cochrane, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough, said the integrity commissioner's report settled some issues, like establishing that Clark broke ethics rules, while leaving others unresolved.

Those unresolved issues could keep the controversy alive.

"There are unregistered lobbyists who had contracts with companies that would be in contravention of the [Lobbyists Registration Act]. There are mixed reports about whether, in fact, the chief of staff of the housing minister had been taking orders from others," Cochrane said. "There's certainly plenty of opportunity here for a sequel."

That sequel may even come in the form of another integrity commissioner's report from Wake himself.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles, who filed the initial complaint that led to Wednesday's integrity commissioner's report into Clarke, has also requested the commissioner look at Ford's daughter's wedding events, which some developers attended.

The integrity commissioner's office told CBC Toronto Thursday it is still considering whether to launch an inquiry into Ford. Work on that was paused during the Clark probe.

Another big question is what the RCMP will do. The national police agency is assessing whether or not to conduct an investigation of its own into the Greenbelt land swap after receiving a referral from the Ontario Provincial Police.

Cochrane said it's also possible that the legislature could censure Clark in some way, as the integrity commissioner recommended. Members of Provincial Parliament aren't sitting now but will return on Sept. 25.

Given that the Progressive Conservatives have a majority government, however, it would require members of his own party to vote in favour of any punishment.

"It's ultimately up to the premier to hire and fire the ministers," Cochrane said. "It's the premier's call."

What the government can do pull itself out

The government has already taken some action following the reports.

First, it has pledged to implement 14 of the auditor general's 15 recommendations (the 15th is to reverse the Greenbelt decision, which it has declined to do), and struck a working group to implement them.

Second, it has begun the process of returning two properties in Ajax, Ont., back to the Greenbelt after their landowner listed them for sale. The province says it is willing to reinstate environmental protections on land removed from the Greenbelt if it believes landowners won't be able to meet the government's directive that developers show significant progress on approvals by the end of this year, with construction to begin in 2025.

Going forward, Heimpel said, the government should be able to continue advancing its policies given their control of the legislature.

"They're going to be able to get things done," he said. "The question is, are they going to be able to get their message out about the things they're accomplishing? That's going to be harder because of these reports."

Heimpel said the government will have to "demonstrate results" by getting "shovels in the ground" and "get[ting] those houses built."

"People have to see progress on the housing crisis. That is ultimately, I think, the measure by which the premier thinks he'll be judged," he said.

Ultimately, it's Ontario voters who will get the final say at the ballot box, although they likely won't have that chance for another three years.


Ryan is a reporter with CBC Toronto. He has also worked for CBC in Vancouver, Yellowknife and Ottawa, filing for web, radio and TV. You can reach him by email at ryan.jones@cbc.ca.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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