By Andy Walker
The P.E.I. government is calling in over $17 million in loans to a handful of snow crab fishermen, effectively bringing a six-year saga to a close.
The eight fishermen who received the loans under the previous Conservative administration of Pat Binns have been told they have to bring their accounts up to date by June 30 or the P.E.I. Lending Agency will turn the matter over to a collection agency.
The loans have been a political football over the last two years after Auditor General Colin Younker found the former government violated lending procedures in handing out the funds. The issue was studied for several months by the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and has surfaced several times during the spring session of the legislature.
Since Islanders will go to the polls on Oct. 3, the rhetoric is unlikely to be toned down. The Robert Ghiz administration is painting the situation as proof of the financial mismanagement of the Conservatives. For their part, the Tories are painting the action as just another case of the Robert Ghiz administration turning its back on the primary industries.
The loans were an attempt by the previous administration to expand the lucrative snow crab industry. The province was hoping Ottawa would increase the Island quota and that would convince private sector entrepreneurs to set up a processing plant in the province. However, both those scenarios failed to materialize.
“You’re going to destroy an industry,” Opposition Fisheries Critic Jim Bagnall said during debate on the Department of Fisheries estimates in the legislature.
For his part, Fisheries Minister Neil LeClair called Bagnall’s contention, “the biggest bunch of baloney I ever heard tell of.” He said the previous government was not dealing in financial reality when it approved the loans.
Bagnall named Belfast-Murray River MLA Charlie McGeoghegan as one of the most outspoken advocates for calling in the loans. The freshmen MLA, a lobster fisherman himself and the son of P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association president Mike McGeoghegan, characterizes the loans as a “sweetheart deal” to Conservative supporters.
Innovation Minister Allan Campbell, who was a fisherman before entering the political arena, now has jurisdiction over the Lending Agency. He said in the legislature that he feels sorry for the eight fishermen involved, but argues the government had little choice.
However, the timing appears to be motivated largely by political considerations. Many of the loans have not seen any payments for the last four or five years. Why wait until a few months before an election to take the action?
It is hard to view this as a sweetheart deal. The eight fishermen invested significant dollars of their own, received little in return, and are now facing the possibility of their assets being seized.
That doesn’t sound like such as a big favour.