The Tory government can count its blessing that the biggest issue it’s faced since coming to power happened in the hazy heat of Old Home Week, when Islanders are more interested in harness racing by night and beaches by day.
When news of a legal end run around the Lands Protection Act became public is less important than how the King government will respond. Dennis King campaigned on enforcing not only the letter, but the spirit of the act. Since taking office, however, government’s tone has changed from populism to meekness.
And that was before Guardian reporter Stu Neatby broke news that the daughter of Mary Jean Irving purchased the 2,200 acre Brendel Farms.
By its own admission, Irvings used a loophole in the act to complete a purchase the former Liberal cabinet had rejected in March. At that time the proposal from three Irving related companies, each listing Mary Jean Irving or one of her two daughters as a shareholder and director, was rejected for violating the 3,000 acre corporate ownership limit. Mary Jean Irving owns Indian River Farms, a major potato producer.
Not one to take no for an answer, the Irving clan opted for a new strategy. Rather than buy the land, buy the corporation that owns the land. Sale of large swaths of land must be reviewed by the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission and approved by cabinet; land included within corporate purchase and sale agreements do not.
In July Green MLA Michele Beaton raised the spectre that the deal denied by the MacLauchlan cabinet was still proceeding. Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson responded by saying “our government doesn’t operate on rumours.”
The fact Minister Thompson was taken by surprise by The Guardian story indicates his department also did nothing to follow up on the Beaton’s question. Out of sight, out of mind does not meet the standard of enforcing the spirit of the Lands Protection Act.
The National Farmers Union is a vocal critic of loopholes within the Lands Protection Act. But the union’s concerns have been largely ignored. This is the first example of an intentional, legal, walk around of regulations. Liberals are unaware of a similar process being utilized under their watch.
But would government even know? If there is no requirement to obtain IRAC approval for land included in the sale of a corporation, then government would need to specifically search every agreement to have a full understanding of land ownership by individual and related corporations. IRAC doesn’t do that.
This is a serious issue that demands a serious response. So far the King government has offered the predictable. Minister Thompson has asked IRAC to review the purchase while refusing to speak publicly about it. The premier has busied himself with summer social events and photo opportunities while remaining silent on an issue that is front and centre for many PC supporters. It doesn’t matter if it’s corporate potato growers, foreign cottage owners or those affiliated with the growing Buddhist presence, Islanders want to trust that the rules are being enforced.
The lack of a forceful response is both disappointing and troubling. In flipping the file to IRAC the minister indicated in an unofficial social media post “I am NOT happy.” But he said nothing about determining how extensive the use of loopholes has been or offered a promise to eliminate them from the Lands Protection Act.
What more evidence does the King government need? An acknowledged loophole was used to buy a farm government had already rejected for being in violation of provincial law. Yet neither the minister nor premier has committed to closing it. The only thing government has done is pass the buck to IRAC, and it’s questionable whether it has the capacity or mandate to investigate anything but this specific transaction.
So much for the boldness Dennis King promised Islanders.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org