Accounting for the Greenbelt giveaway: Auditor General report proves Doug Ford gave Ontarians no value for their money
Ford has disparaged Bonnie Lysyk, FCPA, FCA, whose decade-long tenure has come full circle with a special report on a deal that favoured developers
TORONTO, August 12, 2023 – Two developers with close ties to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservative Party will likely make billions in a biased deal that needlessly removed land from environmentally sensitive lands known as the Greenbelt. That is the conclusion of Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk in a Special Report on Changes to the Greenbelt, which was released Wednesday.
In her value-for-money audit, Lysyk found that, according to the government’s own experts, the removal of Greenbelt lands was not needed to meet the government’s housing goals, as there is sufficient land available for development outside of protected areas. The project to remove land from the Greenbelt was “designed to be swift and confidential” without the customary expert input of stakeholders.
Prominent developers received preferential treatment while communicating via personal email and envelopes given to the housing minister’s chief of staff at a building industry dinner. These developers could see a collective $8.3 billion increase to the value of their properties in a biased and preferential process.
Lysyk the most powerful accountant in Canada
Bonnie Lysyk, FCPA, FCA is arguably the most powerful chartered professional accountant in Canada. Her ability to generate national headlines with “value-for-money” audits has been a common feature of her 10-year tenure as provincial auditor general. That tenure will come to an end this September and it unlikely she will be asked to stay by the Ford government.
In the four-part Canadian Accountant series, Canada's activist auditors general, we traced the evolution of the auditor general role, a change that begin with Sheila Fraser. “I think we’ve made government more transparent and accountable, and provided more information to our legislatures in each province,” Lysyk told Canadian Accountant.
Auditors general represent the public sector apex of the accounting profession, a position of prestige and public trust in Canada. Lysyk, however, dismissed the activist label. She noted that the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) presents information to the Ontario legislature through the course of its audits, but that it is ultimately up to the provincially elected members to decide what, if anything, they want to do with those reports.
Achieving a good-quality outcome for the cost of projects involving the public money of taxpayers defines the value-for-money audit. In January 2023, the Auditor General received a joint letter from all three Ontario provincial opposition party leaders requesting a value-for-money audit and an assessment of the financial and environmental impacts of the government’s decision to remove lands from the Greenbelt.
Among the concerns raised in the letter, the opposition leaders said “the removal of protections from these lands has instantly shifted wealth to property owners, who have likely benefited substantially from the rezoning of this land from undevelopable land to developable land.” The premier and his housing minister claim that they were unaware that the site selection was flawed. Premier Ford has refused to reverse the decision to remove the Greenbelt lands.
Aerial view of farmland in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, Durham County, site of 58% of the land acres removed from the Greenbelt by the Ford government. The lands generated an estimated $14.7 million to Ontario’s gross domestic product in 2021. (Click to enlarge. Image: iStock.)
Ford disparages accountants, auditors in criticism of Lysyk
The auditor general’s special report on the Greenbelt brings Lysyk full circle. Her tenure began with an inaugural report into the cost of cancelling a gas plant in Oakville, Ont. The findings ultimately led to criminal charges and sentencing against the chief of staff of the Liberal government of the time. It also helped in the election of the Ford government, which used charges of corruption against the Liberals, citing Lysyk’s report in their attacks.
Soon after election, the Ford government was embroiled in a patronage scandal, which included an appointment to the Public Accountant’s Council for the Province of Ontario. As reported by Canadian Accountant, a relative of the Ford’s former chief of staff was appointed to the Council, one of several appointments that led to the resignation of the party official.
In 2021, when the auditor general published a report on the Ford government’s initial response to COVID-19, Doug Ford criticized Lysyk as “an accountant who starts giving me health advice.” Said Ford, “stick with the number crunching,” and stop throwing “hand grenades” at public officials. Lysyk should “stick with the job that we hired you for,” the premier added, though Lysyk was appointed in 2013.
In the lead-up the report, Ford attacked Lysyk, saying the Greenbelt was “not even within her scope. She has to look for value for money … [and this] isn’t even in her realm.” A similar sentiment was repeated by developers that benefited from the Greenbelt giveaway, who filed motions with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to avoid a summons to be interviewed by the auditor general and provide records.
Lysyk stated that she met with the OPP, whose anti-rackets division is investigating the deal, during her audit. “We had a meeting and we’ve had discussions,” Lysyk said. “Whatever happens in the future will be up to the OPP to decide whether there is merit in looking at the situation any further.” The OPP says there is no change in the status of their investigation.
Colin Ellis is a contributing editor to Canadian Accountant. Bonnie Lysyk photo courtesy Office of the Auditor General of Ontario.