Ontario Premier Doug Ford has had a rough summer recess, but upon returning to Queen’s Park this week for the legislature’s fall session, he emphasized the high points of his five-year tenure.
Controversy over his government's Greenbelt development plan plagued Mr. Ford over the summer months. After standing by the plan throughout weeks of uproar, he relented last week and called it off. During the row, three cabinet ministers and two senior staffers resigned, and he had to shuffle his cabinet twice.
Mr. Ford saw support for his Progressive Conservatives slipping in the polls—falling from 41 percent in July, to 38 percent in August, to 34 percent in early September, according to Abacus Data. Meanwhile, Olivia Chow was elected as Toronto mayor—a candidate who wasn't his first choice.
However, having said it would be an "unmitigated disaster" if Ms. Chow was elected, Mr. Ford later said he would look for "common ground" with her. The two recently announced a joint task force to work on the city's housing challenges and finances.
Mr. Ford has three years until the next provincial election to gain momentum again. His party currently maintains a six-point lead on the Liberals.
The next few months will show how his new cabinet fares, and whether he can put the Greenbelt affair behind him. They will also reveal how he works with Ms. Chow and who his next Liberal competitor will be. A new Liberal party leader will be announced on Dec. 2 after a vote on Nov. 25.
The Liberals are overtaking the NDP in the polls this year, rebounding after years of scant support from voters.
'The Last Five Years'
Opposition leader Marit Stiles of the NDP started question period on the first day of the fall session on Sept. 25 by recalling all that has beset Mr. Ford this summer.
"[Ontarians] have watched their government lurch from scandal to scandal, crisis to crisis," she said. "How can people trust this premier to work for them when he has spent the last five years putting his friends and insiders first?"
"I'll answer the reason why people should trust us," Mr. Ford replied. "When we came to office, ... it was like walking into a bankrupt company. There was 300,000 jobs lost ... to the U.S., and now there's 700,000 more people working today than there was five years ago."
He touted his government's capital plan to invest $184 billion over the next 10 years in infrastructure, and $70.5 billion on transit over the same period.
He said his government is also working on 50 hospital projects, including building new hospitals and expanding existing ones.
Ms. Stiles said the province is worse off than five years ago. She said emergency rooms have closed and children have been unable to get treatment with the province's autism program. The housing crisis has worsened, she said.
"Not even at the height of the Liberals' gas plant scandal has a government been in such disarray," Ms. Stiles said, referring to the scandal that saw former premier Dalton McGuinty resign and his chief of staff serve jail time. Mr. McGuinty's government had said the cost of cancelling two gas plant projects would be a little over $200 million, but the auditor general found it to be about $1 billion.
Although the integrity commissioner has not found a reason to investigate Mr. Ford personally over the Greenbelt deal, Ms. Stiles alleged phone records and emails have been deleted to hide his involvement.
Mr. Ford said admitting his government made a mistake with the Greenbelt deal and moving forward is a sign of leadership. "That's not going to deter us from building 1.5 million homes," he said.
His new housing minister, Paul Calandra, said the government will soon introduce legislation to reverse the Greenbelt land swap and strengthen protection of the Greenbelt, as well as increase its size by 7,000 acres.
String of Resignations, Cabinet Shuffles
Mr. Ford’s former housing minister, Steve Clark, resigned on Sept. 4 shortly after a report by the integrity commissioner said he failed in his duties regarding the Greenbelt land swap.
Commissioner J. David Wake said Mr. Clark had “his head in the sand” while his new, inexperienced chief of staff led the selection process to remove properties from the Greenbelt for housing development.
Selection “improperly” favoured a few developers, Mr. Wake said. An earlier report by the province’s auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk, found the Greenbelt decision “biased” and said the developers stood to gain $8.3 billion from it.
Kaleed Rasheed, Mr. Ford’s minister of public and business service delivery, resigned on Sept. 20. Reporting by CTV and The Trillium questioned contact he'd had during a 2020 trip to Las Vegas with one of the developers who benefited from the Greenbelt deal.
While in Las Vegas, developer Shakir Rehmatullah booked a massage at the same time and place as Mr. Rasheed, CTV reported. Also on the trip was Mr. Ford’s principal secretary and housing policy director Jae Truesdell, who worked in the private sector at the time.
Mr. Truesdell's resignation was announced by Mr. Ford on Sept. 21.
Mr. Ford’s labour minister, Monte McNaughton, resigned on Sept. 22, but said his resignation was not related to the Greenbelt. It’s the “right time to leave politics,” he said in a statement. He has since accepted a job in the private sector.
After Mr. Clark’s resignation, Mr. Ford shuffled his cabinet, and on Sept. 22 had to shuffle again to fill the additional vacant seats.
Amid the resignations and subsequent shuffles, Mr. Ford announced on Sept. 21 that he would reverse the Greenbelt decision.
Although he previously admitted the plan had faults, Mr. Ford had long maintained it was part of a necessary solution to the province’s housing crisis and that it would result in 50,000 homes being built quickly.
'It was a Mistake'
Mr. Ford’s caucus discussed the impacts of the Greenbelt controversy during a retreat last week in Niagara Falls, the premier told reporters.
"It was a mistake to open the Greenbelt," he said. "This process, it left too much room for some people to benefit over others. It caused people to question our motives."
He said he couldn’t yet say what the costs or consequences of undoing the deal would be.
The Ford government will have to reverse the deal with legislation, and lawyer Tim Gilbert says that legislation may include limits on compensation.
“I really think it’s in the province’s hands right now,” he told The Epoch Times. The developers can try to sue, he said, but the courts have generally said governments can limit compensation to developers for “change of use” decisions.
During question period on Sept. 25, Ms. Stiles asked Mr. Calandra how much it would cost the government to back out of the deal. He replied "nothing," but didn't elaborate.
Even if developers don’t fight the change, the Greenbelt deal may continue to plague Mr. Ford. Investigations persist, with Mr. Wake continuing to probe a lobbyist, known only as “Mr. X,” who was involved in the deal and discussed at length in the commissioner’s report, according to CTV.
Ms. Stiles is asking the commissioner to also investigate Mr. Rasheed, CBC reported.
The RCMP is reviewing information to decide if it will launch an investigation into the land swap.