After commenting publicly on the PEI Government’s decision to give a $4.7 million COVID-19 gift to Robert Irving in a Guardian editorial earlier this week, I was obviously eager to see how this issue would be handled in the Legislative assembly. I knew it would come up, so I was watching. It did last night (Thursday, May 28, 2020).

This particular sitting of the House is dealing mostly with the COVID-19 money being dispersed by the King government. The budget items and program amounts in the COVID-19 Relief document were reviewed line-by-line. Any MLA could speak to any budget line, so I was hoping MLA for Mermaid – Stratford, Michele Beaton (also Agriculture Critic for the Green Party) would address the $4.7 million issue.

She didn’t disappoint.

The precision of her questioning, her clear understanding of the issue and context within which the issue rests, and the calmness with which Ms. Beaton presented her information was impressive. Bloyce? Not so much.

Minister Thompson betrayed a complete lack of understanding of both the real issues at the heart of this matter and the specific questions asked. He didn’t seem to grasp that Ms. Beaton was looking for an explanation for the decision that was made – information about the decision-making process and negotiations that took place – who’s idea was it in the first place? who took that genius idea to whom? How was it approved? Who was involved in that decision-making process?….that kinda stuff. The things all Islanders want to know.

How does the Minister answer? He talked about feelings.

“Farmers were scared.” he said. “Robert Irving was scared.” Something had to be done. With impending doom approaching, thank God cooler heads were prevailing at the Potato Board. Someone [no name mentioned] “stepped up” with an ingenious idea that would satisfy everyone, a miracle cure that would solve all the problems facing Cavendish Farm workers and potato farmers alike…. “mitigate the problem” as Thompson put it. What was it?

“Just pay Robert Irving $4.7 million and he promises not to break his contracts; he won’t lay off all his workers; and he won’t screw the farmers.”

According to Minister Thompson: “It was a great deal.”

Thompson’s real misstep was to suggest that Ms. Beaton may not be looking at the situation through the same compassionate and sympathetic eyes. Her response cut to the heart of the matter.

By contrasting how the King government is treating small Island businesses with how the King government is treating Robert Irving, Ms. Beaton showed the great divide between the preferential treatment being bestowed on a billionaire, with apparently no oversight, nor conditions or decision-making process that has been clearly documented in government records WHILE AT THE SAME TIME small Island business owners are only getting LOANS, and many (estimates up to 30%) apparently won’t survive.

There was not a lot of detail on how the $4.7 million is going to be paid to Robert Irving; however, it will be the Potato Board delivering the cheques. Minister Thompson uses the number “180 potato farmers” but that is misleading and inaccurate. There are only 80 processing growers and I suspect only a dozen or two of those processing growers had potatoes remaining.

The General Manager of the Potato Board will no doubt make sure the full $4.7 million gets disbursed, he’s had something of a “history” with Robert Irving: “He then spent 14+ years in progressively responsible management positions in the agricultural crop input business in Atlantic Canada and Maine with the Cavendish Group” [See: “Greg Donald Appointed to Board of World Potato Congress”].

One question I don’t know the answer to is whether that $4.7 million is coming out of the $16-$17 million provided to the PEI Government by the Federal government. There is apparently complete discretion on the one hand with that money, but ultimately it has to be accounted for and comply with conditions and terms established by the federal government. If those terms are the same as previously announced by the Federal Government for corporate COVID-19 Relief…..well, that may be a problem for the King government. Free money to corporations and billionaires wasn’t part of the equation as far as I know.

With the not-surprising and long-predicted rebound in the french-fry market already happening, the PEI Government seemingly remains bent on making Robert Irving accept that $4.7 million gift. Why?
Count how many times Minister Thompson speaks of Irving’s “need”. With such insistence that Irving accept the gift, it was a relief to hear the Minister say that Robert Irving will not be “required” to take all of that $4.7 million. Phew! That’s good. In fact that’s really good. No one – not even billionaires – should ever be FORCED to take free government money EVER. That’s tyranny.

When I think of Minister Thompson in control of the future direction of PEI’s agriculture and land…I shiver.

When I think of Minister Thompson in control of our justice and legal systems….I shudder!

Seriously….it’s time to take a backbench seat Minister Thompson.