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Ontario Premier Doug Ford announces that he will be reversing his government’s decision to open the Greenbelt to developers during a press conference in Niagara Falls, Ont., on Sept. 21.Tara Walton/The Canadian Press

He thought he could get away with it.

When Doug Ford’s government announced last year that it would remove some parcels of land from Ontario’s protected Greenbelt, he must have reckoned that most people would not mind that much. The province was in the grip of a housing crisis. Releasing the land would allow developers to throw up lots of new subdivisions, increasing the supply of homes and easing some of the pressure that had made Ontario housing so expensive. Who, apart from a few environmentalists and other natural opponents, could possibly object?

Yes, he had made a promise in the recent election campaign to protect the Greenbelt; an explicit promise, too. When the opposition made a fuss about a video showing him suggesting he would free up some Greenbelt land for builders, he came out right away and vowed: “The people have spoken – we won’t touch the Greenbelt.”

But then, in June of 2022, he won a second term, with a majority in the legislature. What was one little promise, made in the heat of an election battle? The people had returned him to power. They had placed their faith in him, empowering him to conduct the business of governing as he saw fit. They wanted more housing; he had vowed to deliver it. Surely they would forgive him for reversing himself. After all, he was doing it with the very best of intentions.

When a tough Auditor-General’s report found that most of the land removals had been funnelled through his housing minister’s chief of staff instead of proper civil-service channels, and that some developers stood to make a fortune in the bargain, Mr. Ford admitted that mistakes were made, but defended the housing minister and insisted there was no turning back.

He was wrong. The great unravelling had begun. The chief of staff resigned. The Integrity Commissioner issued a report of his own. It found that the housing minister, Steve Clark, had broken the rules and that the land removals had been characterized by “unnecessary hastiness and deception.” Mr. Clark resigned.

Then the final strand came loose. It emerged that another member of Mr. Ford’s cabinet, Kaleed Rasheed, had gone on a trip to Las Vegas that overlapped with the visit of a developer who owned land that was taken out of the Greenbelt. The two had even enjoyed a spa visit together. He resigned, too.

Explainer: The Ontario Greenbelt controversy, Doug Ford’s role and what has happened so far

With two cabinet ministers gone, his support in the polls falling and his caucus growing fretful, Mr. Ford finally backed down on Thursday and said he would not take lands out of the Greenbelt after all. The usually bumptious Premier looked grim and humbled as he faced the media. It was as if all the wind was taken out of him.

And no wonder. A more complete and humiliating climbdown is hard to imagine. Finally, he was admitting that the problem was not just how his government had handled the Greenbelt removals; it was his decision to remove them in the first place. “I made a promise to you that I wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt,” he said. “I broke that promise. And for that, I’m very, very sorry.” As “a first step to earn back your trust,” he would reverse his reversal and leave the Greenbelt completely alone. It was the worst setback of his five years as premier.

But what was a bad day for Mr. Ford was a good one for democracy in Ontario. Mr. Ford backed down only because its built-in checks and balances worked as they should. The Auditor-General and the Integrity Commissioner did their jobs and put the government’s actions under a magnifying glass. Media organizations dug into the ties between government figures and developers. Opposition leaders harried Mr. Ford and his ministers without relent. Environmental and civic groups reminded Mr. Ford of his duty to safeguard the province’s green spaces.

Because of those combined forces, the Premier was forced to admit his error and apologize. He did not get away with it after all. He was held to account. The whole sorry business was a lesson not just for his government but for others across the country. Keep your promises, follow the rules. It doesn’t get more fundamental than that.

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