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Why the Greenbelt scandal won't ruin Ford

The Greenbelt controversy is unlikely to inflict permanent damage on premier Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservative government
because voters aren't shocked by skullduggery in politics—They expect it

By Marc Zwelling, President, The Vector Poll™

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Some pundits and reporters covering politics are certain the Greenbelt scandal has damaged Premier Doug Ford and ruined the Progressive Conservatives' chances to win a third straight election.

The controversy, however, is unlikely to inflict permanent damage on the premier and the PC government because voters aren't shocked by skullduggery in politics. They expect it. Announcing he was backtracking on his plan to open Greenbelt lands for housing, Ford contritely called it "a first step to earn back your trust." Long before the Greenbelt tempest, however, voters suspected Ford had a hidden agenda.

A year prior to last year's provincial election, in a Vector Poll, 43% in Ontario expected that in the campaign Ford would hide "some things about his plans that voters ought to know." And 38% felt he would "mostly tell the truth but not tell voters everything he plans to do."

Opposition parties can't exploit misbehaviour such as Ford's broken promises because for decades the public has believed all politicians are the same — untrustworthy. In 1982 the Gallup Poll asked Canadians to rate "the honesty and ethical standards" of people in 15 professions. Members of Parliament ranked last; merely 14% felt MPs' ethical standards were "very high" or "high." Pharmacists were the most trusted: 74% said they had high ethical standards.

In 1987, 63% said it's "mostly true" that "you can't trust politicians to tell the truth," in a poll conducted by the Institute for Social Research at York University. In 2002 a Leger poll asked Canadians how much they trusted 20 professions. Politicians ranked last, trusted by just 18%, behind "car salespeople" (23%).

In another 2002 Leger poll seven in 10 people said "the political system" is highly or somewhat corrupt "at the federal level." Seven in 10 said it's corrupt "at the provincial level." Municipal politics had a slightly better reputation: 53% said it's corrupt.

In 2003, when Ipsos Reid measured the public's trust in 26 occupations, "national politicians" ranked last; just 9% said they were trustworthy. Local politicians ranked 20th (20% said they could be trusted). Pharmacists came out on top again; 91% said they were trustworthy.

An Ipsos poll in 2005 found 33% felt "there is more corruption in government today than 10 years ago" while 58% felt it's "about the same." Only 8% said less. Legislators probably thought they could burnish their reputation by hiring ethics commissioners and other watchdogs. Six provinces and the federal government have an auditor general. Every province and territory and the federal government has an ethics, conflict-of-interest, or integrity commissioner.

Having these integrity police may just convince the public that lawmakers must be rotten if they need ethics watchdogs. In 2021, Maru Public Opinion asked Canadians if they trust the people in 28 occupations. MPs ranked 24th (firefighters were first).

The poor reputation of politicians is reflected in declining voter turnout and Canadians' hostility toward tax increases. The dearth of confidence in the people we elect to govern us is dangerous for democracy. When a large company has a poor reputation, its executives make it a priority to improve perceptions of their brand. Politicians should do the same.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star on Saturday, October 7, 2023

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