Bonnie Lysyk knew her final report as Ontario’s Auditor-General about the government’s decision to carve out lands from the protected Greenbelt for development would be met with significant interest from the public.
Almost a month later, the Greenbelt saga continues to dominate Ontario politics, as a result of both Ms. Lysyk’s report and Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake’s finding this week that Housing Minister Steve Clark broke ethics rules in the matter.
What surprised Ms. Lysyk is that Ontario Premier Doug Ford is refusing to back away from his plan.
“I didn’t expect no immediate accountability for the decision. I think that’s the unusual part,” Ms. Lysyk said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
The government accepted 14 of her report’s 15 recommendations – but rejected the one that calls on Mr. Ford to re-evaluate the decision to change the Greenbelt boundaries.
“I think the reason this is playing out the way it is, is because people expect that decision to be revisited,” Ms. Lysyk said.
“You can apologize that the decision happened. That makes sense. But you can’t really ignore that it happened in a wrong way.”
The Auditor-General, whose ten-year term ends Sunday, has proved herself a thorn in the side of both Liberal and Conservative governments. A career auditor with a friendly disposition who speaks in a matter-of-fact manner, Ms. Lysyk is the first woman to have held the post. She says that while her term is up, she is not retiring and still interested in becoming involved in the finance or energy sectors.
She views the role of provincial auditor as holding governments to account and calling for more transparency and greater oversight of decision-making that affects millions of Ontarians.
And one cannot dispute that she went out with a bang. Ms. Lysyk’s Aug. 9 report set off a firestorm of criticism after she revealed that Mr. Clark’s former chief of staff, Ryan Amato, drove the process that led to 15 parcels of land being removed from the protected Greenbelt area around Toronto, creating a potential $8.3-billion windfall for a select group of developers.
The report landed like a thud for Mr. Ford’s government. Mr. Clark’s chief of staff has since resigned, the file has been referred by the OPP to the RCMP for review, and calls have intensified for the Housing Minister to resign.
Mr. Clark apologized this week for failing to oversee his own office. But he has refused to resign, and Mr. Ford said he has confidence in Mr. Clark to continue as his Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister.
“There is ministerial accountability … and probably what’s happening is not what people would expect,” Ms. Lysyk said.
What she has seen in recent years is more involvement from political staff in decision-making. “There’s more influence from the political side in the operations of government,” she said.
Ms. Lysyk’s report found that the Greenbelt decision was “biased” and “seriously flawed” and lacked the necessary environmental and financial analysis.
“We went into this thinking there was a process that was used that would involve considering the environment, agriculture, finances – something that supported the extraction of those lands from the Greenbelt,” she said.
“We’ve even tried to avoid using the word ‘process,’ and just call it an exercise.”
She said she was also surprised to see that the government is now running advertisements about building 1.5 million homes by 2031, to counter the fallout from her report. “It’s diverting from what is the issue,” she said.
“It’s two separate discussions. One is one of ethics, making decisions based on good information and a public transparent process, when there’s so much potential money involved. The other one is, how will Ontario build houses?”
After she departs, she said the auditor-general’s office will continue to probe the land planning issue, looking into the use of minister’s zoning orders (MZOs) and housing. The government is expected to name a new auditor in the fall.
During her time in the role, Ms. Lysyk completed 168 reports, on everything from homelessness to autism programs to hydro prices. Her first report in 2013 looked into the former Liberal government’s cancellation of a gas plant in Oakville – a decision that, combined with the cancellation of one in Mississauga, was estimated to cost the taxpayers $1.1-billion.
Ms. Lysyk also disagreed repeatedly with the former government about its accounting practices, including that the Liberals understated the province’s projected deficits by billions of dollars.
Before her Greenbelt report was even released, Mr. Ford took the Auditor-General to task, saying it’s outside of her scope, which is to look for value for money.
“There shouldn’t be any pushback to an audit office, an auditor-general’s office, if you’re comfortable in your own shoes and you’re comfortable with what you’re doing,” she said.
Two prominent developers, Silvio De Gasperis and Michael Rice, also took her office to court in a bid to block her efforts to speak with them for the Greenbelt report. It worked, and she never ended up talking to them, although they spoke to Mr. Wake for his report.
The auditor determined that the bulk of the removed land was identified in documents that Mr. Amato received from the two prominent developers asking for their properties to be taken out of the Greenbelt.
“When the developers started pushing back I said, ‘No, why would we fight them?’ ” Ms. Lysyk said. “I thought you know what, we have enough information.”
The Greenbelt matter has now been referred to the Mounties, who are deciding whether to launch an investigation.
“I have nothing in the report that indicates anything criminal that took place. I think what we see here is an ethical issue,” Ms. Lysyk said.
But governments should be equally concerned about perception, and not just reality, she said.
“If people perceive that the way you get things done in Ontario is through the back door, what is that communicating to the public? Because not everybody knows how to get in that back door.”