Let’s dub the growing scandal surrounding the Ford Government’s decision to favour certain developers’ proposals to build housing in the greenbelt surrounding Toronto Greenbeltgate. For those not familiar with the story, the Ontario Auditor-General – an official responsible to the Legislature, not to the Government – last week released a report that concluded that the Ford Government’s process of selecting land for development “was biased in favour of certain developers and landowners who had timely access to the housing minister’s chief of staff.”
In this post, I will provide my interpretation for the motivations of the key players (so far) involved in Greenbeltgate: the developers, Premier Ford, Housing Minister Steve Clark, and Ryan Amato, Clark’s Chief of Staff.
A Well-Motivated Exchange
Ontario’s political contribution rules are much stricter than those in the US, for example only contributions by individuals, to a maximum of $6700 annually, are permitted to political parties. But corporations can nonetheless find ways to exert influence, for example having their executives and family members of their executive donating up to the limit (what is called “bundling” in the US.)
Political parties need money of course, especially the Ontario PC Party which conducts a permanent election campaign by running ads throughout its entire mandate.
One might ask why the government should favour “certain developers and landowners” when any developer could be expected to contribute to the Ontario PC Party if its development proposals are accepted by the Government. I think the question answers itself. The Ford Government is most comfortable with developers the Premier knows well and the developers in this case, Michael Rice and the de Gasperis family, have very deep pockets. If the right to build were to be auctioned off to the bidder that could offer the biggest kickback to the Ontario PC Party, they would win. The money-for-influence nexus flourishes between the Ontario PC Party and business, especially land developers.
Narrative and Hubris
One might also ask whether the Ford Government, especially the Premier, thought they would get away with running a development process rife with political favouritism. My answer is first that they think they have a winning narrative that can drown out accusations of corruption and second, hubris.
The government’s narrative is that, due to their wise economic policies, Ontario is experiencing in-migration of 500,000 people annually – and will be experiencing that level of in-migration for the foreseeable future – and these people need homes. The narrative is repeated at every opportunity by the Premier and his ministers and, using the money in its war-chest, the PC Party blitzes the media with this message, especially now. The Ford Government also runs a lot of advertising paid for by the government budget to promote its policies, such as its plans for redeveloping Ontario Place, but using the public purse for this particular media blitz would only generate more criticism.
I suggest two sources of hubris. First, the Ford Government was elected with an increased majority in June 2022, and these land development decisions were made in September 2022, in the afterglow of that triumph. Ford himself was likely feeling invincible. (In a recent post I discussed Ford’s appearance at the Empire Club and how he gave the impression of being at the peak of his political power.) Second, as I’ve discussed several years ago, there is copious evidence that Ford was a major drug dealer in the Eighties, but this has never hurt him. That, too, must lead him to believe he has led, and will continue to lead, a charmed political life. (Unlike Donald Trump, who wears his criminality as a badge of honour and evidence of a perpetual witch-hunt by his adversaries, Ford denies it.)
Ford has gone so far as to request a review by the province’s Integrity Commissioner of chief of staff Ryan Amato’s behaviour. Amato is a young party operative, less than a decade out of university. There is widespread disbelief that Amato was acting on his own initiative. Likely, all the communications about this issue between Amato and Clark or Ford were oral or there is no email or text trail, possibly because they used WhatsApp’s disappearing messages. Furthermore, Ford and his Housing Minister Steve Clark must think that Amato will say nothing, even under oath, that will implicate them. They are expecting that Amato will follow the practice of omerta and, if he is incriminated by the Integrity Commissioner, he will be taken care of, for example by one of the development companies. In this instance, too, Ford must think that he’s invincible.
The Ford family, right from its early days in municipal politics, has always had an odour of corruption. As Doug Ford has risen to the position of ultimate power, that odour has become a stench that undercuts the populist image he has tried so carefully to project. This might become the key issue that defeats him in the next election.