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PCs reject NDP’s Greenbelt restoration bill, promising their own soon

Opposition parties tried a few different avenues to keep the Greenbelt scandal alive after the premier's U-turn
Ontario premier Doug Ford, centre, responds to questions as members of Provincial Parliament returned to Queen’s Park for the fall session of the Ontario Legislature at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park

Looking to put the Greenbelt scandal behind it, Premier Doug Ford’s government will “very soon” introduce legislation to reverse its controversial land removals, Housing Minister Paul Calandra said on Monday.

On the same day, Progressive Conservative MPPs used their majority to quash an NDP bill that would have had a similar effect.

Also on the first day of the fall sitting, opposition parties at Queen’s Park made two other new attempts at fanning the flames of the most significant scandal the Ford government has faced to date.

The government’s Greenbelt land swap faced intense scrutiny over the four-month-long summer sitting break, thanks to two scathing watchdog reports that cratered Ford’s and the PCs’ approval ratings. 

Then-auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s bombshell Greenbelt report on Aug. 9 reinvigorated the controversy, launching six weeks of drama that led to Ford’s abrupt reversal on the policy last Thursday.

“I made a promise to you that I wouldn't touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise. And for that, I'm very, very sorry,” Ford said in Niagara Falls. “To earn back your trust, I'll be reversing the changes we made and won't make any changes to the Greenbelt in the future.”

In between Lysyk’s report and Ford’s U-turn, Ontario’s integrity commissioner unveiled a similarly damming report based on his own investigation, and two cabinet ministers and two senior staff resigned in connection to the scandal. 

A third minister — Monte McNaughton — also announced he was leaving politics last Friday, although he and Ford’s office both said it had no connection to the ongoing controversy.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are continuing to assess the circumstances that led to land being taken out of the protected area but have kept quiet about whether they’re launching a full-fledged investigation.

Meanwhile, the opposition NDP, Liberals and Greens showed on Monday they’re determined to keep up the pressure on the government, despite its reversal.

The biggest move was from NDP Leader Marit Stiles, who introduced the “Greenbelt Restoration Act,” which she promised a week ago. 

The bill sought to reverse the Greenbelt removals and shield the lands from additional incursions.

In a rare procedural move, PC MPPs voted to reject Stiles’ bill at first reading. Almost all bills make it past this introductory stage. Second reading — when MPPs first debate legislation before voting whether to send it to a committee for study — is where opposition bills most often die.

During question period earlier in the day, Calandra — Ford’s longtime government house leader, and also the new housing minister — said outright that the PCs planned to kill the NDP’s proposal, instead favouring one they’ll introduce. 

“And we will go one step further, Mr. Speaker. We will codify in legislation the boundaries of the Greenbelt … We’re going to do what has never been done in this province before and we will protect the Greenbelt once and for all,” Calandra promised during question period.

The PCs’ forthcoming bill will ensure the 15 removed Greenbelt land parcels are returned, and the 9,400 acres of land it replaced them with remain protected, Calandra told reporters afterwards.

Enshrining the protections in legislation would force governments to go through the legislature to make any changes — rather than making them unilaterally.

Stiles wasn’t sold. “I don’t trust this government to fix a mess of their own making. I don’t trust them not to include giant loopholes,” she told reporters. 

NDP MPP Catherine Fife also tried to sustain the controversy at a public accounts committee meeting. 

She tabled a motion to expedite when the committee — which spends the bulk of its time reviewing auditor general’s report after auditor general’s report — would discuss Lysyk’s Greenbelt investigation. Like Stiles’ bill, Fife’s attempt was quashed by PC MPPs who occupy the majority of committee seats.

In a more obscure pressure attempt of his own, Green Leader Mike Schreiner wrote to Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake asking him to launch a public inquiry into the scandal.

The process the government used to select parcels of land for removal from the Greenbelt “breached the trust” of MPPs, Schreiner wrote in his letter to Wake.

Wake’s report from Aug. 30 — like Lysyk’s before it — was harshly critical of this process, calling the work led by ex-housing minister Steve Clark’s former chief of staff Ryan Amato “rushed, non-transparent and almost reckless.”

Both Clark and Amato resigned in the last few weeks.

Schreiner also argued in his letter to Wake that the government’s process broke three parliamentary conventions: ministerial responsibility, ministerial solidarity, and the independence of the public service. 

The letter is “under review,” Wake’s spokesperson Michelle Renaud said.

Although the integrity commissioner’s office has never launched a public inquiry in the way Schreiner has requested, it has the ability to through the Members’ Integrity Act

Fife tried to connect the Greenbelt scandal with other issues the opposition wants to make hay on and tar them with the same brush. 

“These Greenbelt transactions are also connected to a number of other transactions, including Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass and rewarding (ministerial zoning orders),” Fife said at the public accounts committee meeting.

A joint investigation by The National Observer and Toronto Star found eight of Ontario’s biggest developers — and prolific PC donors — own thousands of acres of land along the proposed 413 route. 

Liberal interim leader John Fraser also made clear on Monday that his party won’t let the scandal die. 

“The Greenbelt is just the tip of the iceberg. If you take a look at the municipal boundary (expansions) in Ottawa and Hamilton, you have the same situation where a wealthy few are going to benefit from this,” he said. 

Liberal MPP Stephen Blais recently asked the auditor general to investigate Ottawa’s municipal boundary expansion. 

Last fall, the province added 654 acres to Ottawa’s urban boundary — beyond the 1,200 acre-expansion the city’s council requested. 

The additional expansion area includes a parcel of previously-protected land owned by a company whose directors have donated thousands of dollars to the PCs since 2021. 

NDP MPP Sandy Shaw said she’ll also ask to the auditor general to investigate Hamilton’s urban boundary expansion. 

In 2021, Hamilton council voted to keep its boundaries intact, but the province overrode that request. 

Two developers who had land removed from the Greenbelt also benefited from Hamilton’s expansion.