BY ANDY WALKER
If her cabinet colleague decides to scrap the owner-operator policy, National Revenue Minister Gail Shea is going to be feeling plenty of heat.
Shea, who was the first fisheries minister from PEI in over four decades during her first term in Ottawa, has many of the largest ports in the province in her Egmont constituency. As the province’s representative at the federal cabinet table, she must bear the brunt of any backlash that results from a review now being spearheaded by her successor, Keith Ashfield, in the fisheries portfolio.
While the industry was certainly bracing for job cuts at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and a greater downloading of responsibility to industry, the fact the owner-operator policy might be on the table as part of a departmental review caught most by surprise.
The issue first surfaced when Cardigan MP Lawrence MacAulay, who is the Liberal fisheries critic, asked Ashfield in the House of Commons whether the policy was part of a review of the commercial fishery. Ashfield answered instead was that all aspects of the department operation were on the table.
The long-standing policy is designed to ensure the inshore fishery does not fall under corporate control. If it disappears, the fishing fleet in Atlantic Canada could turn into a corporate fiefdom and turn independent fishermen into employees.
The PEI Fishermen’s Association has joined its counterparts across the region in condemning the idea. Association president Mike McGeoghegan said the idea was floated without any consultation with industry and he is worried it could be the final nail in the coffin of an industry that has been struggling with declining prices and (in the case of both the spring and fall fisheries on the south side of the province) declining catches.
The association is working with industry groups in the other Atlantic Provinces, as well as provincial and federal politicians to try to kill the idea before it goes any further. He maintains Shea has a responsibility to make sure the department she once headed knows the Island industry is against the move.
MacAulay has been questioning the fisheries minister at every opportunity about the review. The longest serving MP in Atlantic Canada has a reputation as a fierce fighter and if Ashfield thinks he might back down, he is sadly mistaken.
The realities of a majority government mean that if the Conservatives really want the change, it will happen. However, it could exact a political price in the Atlantic region when Canadians go to the polls in 2015. On PEI, the National Revenue Minister would be the one to pay the piper.
While the votes of fishermen would not be enough to turn the tide in itself, keep in mind the federal government is planning widespread cuts in virtually every service it provides. Cutbacks don’t tend to make a government MP popular especially when they occur over a broad spectrum.
The inshore fishery accounts for 9,000 direct and indirect jobs in the province. That would be quite a whole in the provincial economy if it disappeared.
The industry can’t survive in its current form without the owner-operator policy and the Island industry has signaled it has no intention of going down without a fight.