Opposition parties call so often for cabinet ministers to resign that Canadians can be forgiven for thinking there isn’t always a compelling reason. But this time, in Premier Doug Ford’s Ontario, it couldn’t be clearer.
After what we learned this week, Housing Minister Steve Clark must be fired if anything like ministerial responsibility is to survive in Mr. Ford’s government.
Mr. Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, put together a secretive, politically directed process that gave preferential treatment to a few land developers by removing their parcels of land from Southern Ontario’s legally protected Greenbelt, leading to an $8-billion windfall for those developers. That’s all according to a special report from Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk.
The excuses we heard Wednesday, from both Mr. Clark and Mr. Ford, come down to two things. One is their weak claim that a lightning process to swap land out of the Greenbelt was necessary to meet housing needs. The other is that Mr. Amato kept them in the dark – and they didn’t know he had hijacked the review of Greenbelt land swaps from civil servants, and provided preferential treatment to developers who handed him packages about the land they wanted removed.
But neither of those excuses matter when it comes to Mr. Clark’s future as a minister. Even if both are 100-per-cent true, there is no question that he should resign. Or be fired.
By now, we are well into an era of political shamelessness. Ministers find reasons not to fall on their swords, and premiers and prime ministers are loath to fire them for cause. The federal Trade Minister, Mary Ng, was cited for two clear-cut cases of breaking ethics rules in December, and didn’t resign. There have been many other cases of low standards.
But if Mr. Clark is allowed to stay on, the government of Canada’s largest province is abandoning any notion of individual ministerial responsibility. Canadians in other provinces – Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats, whatever – should take heed, too, because it is part of a general debasing of the coinage of accountability.
Mr. Amato was Mr. Clark’s chief of staff. Everything Mr. Amato did on the Greenbelt file, or anything else, was in the name of the minister. A minister’s aides don’t have any authority of their own.
According to the Auditor-General’s report, the deputy minister – the top civil servant in the Ministry of Housing – thought Mr. Amato was acting on the minister’s instructions.
So, according to Ms. Lysyk’s report, officials followed orders when Mr. Amato asked for a small group of bureaucrats to sign confidentiality agreements, when Mr. Amato identified parcels of land they should consider, and when he changed the criteria for judging them.
This is mind-boggling. Ontarians are being told that one political staffer was able to take over the machinery of government to make important determinations that increased the value of certain developers’ private property by billions of dollars. And neither the minister nor the Premier knew.
That wasn’t, as Mr. Ford suggested, just a bad process that has to be corrected for the next time. Ms. Lysyk rang an alarm bell that should have him calling in investigators. And firing the minister.
Mr. Clark’s aide hijacked Mr. Clark’s department on Mr. Clark’s watch. If the minister is not responsible, then no one is responsible for what happens in a government ministry any more.
Canadian governments are supposed to work on the notion of ministerial responsibility, which means, among other things, that ministers are responsible to the legislature for their portfolio.
It has always been rare for federal or provincial ministers to resign over mismanagement, and the idea that ministers are personally responsible for everything that happens in a government department is outdated. But the minister’s staff is still just the extension of the minister.
It’s hard to fathom how this whole business went on without Mr. Clark ever getting a whiff of it, but when egregious things like this happen in his name, he has to go. Instead, Mr. Ford told reporters “the buck stops here” while he tried to keep the buck spinning.
He’s not the first political leader to do that, for sure. Politicians don’t seem to blush any more. The notion of a minister’s responsibility has already been stretched by governments in Canada.
In standing by Mr. Clark, Mr. Ford is taking it too far.