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What does the Auditor General’s report tell us about Doug Ford’s approach to governance?

August 10, 2023

Published in The Conversation, August 17, 2023

Findings of this week’s report from Ontario’s Auditor General on the Ford government’s decision to remove 7400 acres from the Greater Toronto Area Greenbelt came as no surprise to those who have followed the government’s approach to planning and development matters over the past five years.

The major features of the auditor’s findings: well-connected developers given direct access to ministerial staff and the opportunity to re-write planning rules to suit their own interests; normal decision-making processes and planning rules bypassed; overwhelming evidence, in this case, indicating that there was no need to remove land from the Greenbelt to meet the region’s housing needs, ignored; and decisions made to provide billions in benefits to specific private interests, but which will do nothing to enhance housing affordability, all fit within a wider pattern of behaviour.

In a sense, the Greenbelt “exercise” was a culmination of these elements, evident in the government’s decisions and legislative changes since 2018. These have included the widespread use of ministerial zoning orders (MZOs) to override local plans and council decisions in favour of development interests. In other cases, developers have been invited to rewrite the planning rules developed by municipalities and communities to facilitate and manage urban intensification as per existing provincial policies, to suit their own interests. Examples of such actions have been seen in midtown and downtown Toronto, Richmond Hill, Markham, Mississauga and other locations. The roles of Conservation Authorities and local governments in decision-making have been systemically marginalized and planning rules related to built and natural heritage conservation shredded. The costs of the infrastructure needed to support private, for-profit development, have been transferred to local and provincial taxpayers.

In sum, the province’s land-use planning system, including the Greenbelt and growth plans for the Greater Toronto Area, once the subject of international acclaim for its management of intense growth pressures in the region while protecting farmland, housing affordability and natural heritage areas, had already been transformed into an instrument wielded by the province to overcome any objections to the development industry’s wishes.

The result has been a predictable picture of policy failure - a development boom defined by hyper-intensive single-use high-rise, largely condominium, development in some urban areas, and sprawling low-density development at the urban periphery - a direction further facilitated by the Greenbelt removals. This model of ‘tall and sprawl” development has done little to actually improve housing affordability, particularly for those at the lower end of the income scale. In fact, in some areas the development industry-led model is leading to significant losses of existing affordable rental housing – displaced by investor-owned condominium developments.

The same basic principles evident in the government’s handling of the Greenbelt and housing files can be seen across a range of files from energy to health care – a casual approach to decision-making in which normal governance processes are regarded as nothing but delay inducing ‘red tape,’ and a tendency to respond uncritically to whatever favoured economic interests tell it to do. That point was highlighted in the premier’s Greenbelt press conference, where he seemed to define good governance as saying “yes” to whatever business lobbyists ask for.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the Premier’s apparent blindness to the meaning of ministerial responsibility or accountability in a system of democratic governance.  Both the Premier and his minister of housing are claiming to not have known what the minister’s chief of staff was doing on the Greenbelt file. Those positions carry with them implications of either serious failures in management and oversight or an attempt to mislead the Legislature, Auditor General and public.

So far, the government has stonewalled on the auditor’s key recommendation, - that the removal of lands from the Greenbelt be re-evaluated in light of what the government itself admits was a profoundly flawed decision-making process. A further report on the process is yet to come from the Legislature’s Integrity Commissioner, and the auditor has already committed to a follow-up audit. The political and legal fallout from the government’s greenbelt “exercise” seems destined to continue for some time.

Whether the whole episode will prompt the government to reconsider its seat-of-the-pants, evidence-free and friends-with-benefits approach to governance remains an open question. It would have to accept the possibility that it actually did something wrong before getting to that point. For now, that concept seems to continue to escape its grasp.