What exactly is Doug Ford sorry for?
Last Thursday, the Ontario Premier reversed his reversal of his previous reversal of his original 2018 plan for development in the protected Greenbelt around Toronto. But after two months of digging in his heels, there he was, his cabinet forced to line up behind him to share in the ignominy, doing his third U-turn on the file.
He said he was “very, very sorry.”
He was sorry because he’d heard that constituents weren’t happy.
He was sorry that he’d broken a promise.
He was sorry his government created “a process that moved too fast” and “caused people to question our motives.”
And so, he said, “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.”
But why? That’s unclear. Because after saying that opening the Greenbelt had been a mistake – a mistake he had been caught promising developers in 2018 – and a mistake he had previously promised to never make again (the promise he made in 2018, reversed in 2022, and was now re-reversing in 2023), he laid out why he still thought opening the Greenbelt was a good idea.
“I’ve been clear: I believe opening the Greenbelt can make a big difference,” he said. “Ontario is growing at an unprecedented speed. And doing more of the same, accepting the status quo, will only make the housing affordability crisis worse.”
But even if he knew he was right, he also acknowledged that he was wrong and sorry “because even if you do something for the right reasons, with the best of intentions, it can still be wrong.”
That line was not the result of Mr. Ford trying his hand at improv comedy. He was reading from the teleprompter, and not like Ron Burgundy. His words were the scrubbed product of cosmetic surgeries by a public-private consortium of government spin doctors.
Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli boiled the thought down to its essence later the same day. The Premier had the best intentions, Mr. Fedeli said, “but doing the right thing isn’t always the right thing to do.”
Maybe it’s the 11th commandment, the one that never made it down from the mountain: “And The Lord spake unto Moses and said, hey, buddy, there’s one more thing I forgot to engrave onto those tablets: Sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t the right thing.”
What sounds like a Ford gaffe was instead what physicists of comms topspin call the message track – the big takeaway the government wanted to get across.
The Premier was wrong, you see, but not so wrong that he wasn’t also right. Only in trying to do right had he done wrong. And for the right reasons. But he’d never do it again. “It” being the wrong part of doing right.
“When faced with making the tough decisions,” Mr. Ford said, “we’ll always choose to do what’s right.”
Except when right is wrong. Presented with such a dilemma, he would always turn right. Not that right. The other right.
“As I’ve shown in the past, and as I’m showing you today, when I make a mistake, I’ll fix them and I’ll learn from them. Because that’s what I promised I would do.”
Okay, but what was the mistake Mr. Ford made in the Greenbelt?
Reasonable people can disagree about how big or small should be the protected area of farms, forests and streams around Toronto. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether there should be a Greenbelt at all. And when Mr. Ford’s government announced the removal of 7,400 acres, that affected just one-third of 1 per cent of the Greenbelt’s 2-million acres.
I’d like to see the area maintained and expanded, and entrenched in law – something the Ford government says it will now do. But the scandal in the Greenbelt isn’t really about the Greenbelt. It’s about the extremely strong whiff of corruption that surrounds the government’s repeated visits to the area.
The Auditor-General found that, when the government removed 15 parcels of land from the protected zone, it benefitted their owners to the tune of $8.3-billion.
How did the government decide which pieces of land to rezone? By means of a secretive, insiders-only, backroom process that followed none of the normal rules. In plain English, the government used regulatory alchemy to gift $8.3-billion to a handful of developers.
Did anyone in the Ford government benefit? Or did they just think that making developers rich was fun, like that time Oprah gave everyone in her studio audience a car?
When U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower left the White House, he gave a speech in which he talked about the dangers of a “military-industrial complex.” In Ontario, the danger is of a government-developer complex.
It starts with incidents such as the chief fundraiser for the Progressive Conservative Party selling tickets to a party at the Premier’s house, with some tickets purchased by developers and with the money going to the Premier’s family.
Where does it end? We don’t know. Not yet.
Sorry. Very, very sorry.