Rules around fishing licences, cabinet ministers 'frustrating' for PC MLA
'I think it's a conversation DFO needs to have'
PC MLA Sidney MacEwen said he watched nine of his colleagues sworn in as cabinet ministers in Georgetown yesterday with mixed emotions.
"Big-time mixed feelings. I was so proud of them, I was so happy for our team," he said, "Obviously, I was disappointed in my own situation."
Left to watch from the sidelines
MacEwen, who just two years ago was pressured by the PCs to run for the leadership of the party, was one of just three PCs left to watch from the sidelines as the rest of their caucus was sworn in as part of the minority government under new Premier Dennis King.
MacEwen believes he and fellow PC MLA Colin LaVie faced an unfair — though perhaps not insurmountable — obstacle barring their way from cabinet: the two are fishermen.
P.E.I.'s Conflict of Interest Act requires cabinet ministers put their business holdings in a blind trust.
MacEwen said he spoke to P.E.I.'s conflict of interest commissioner and was told he would be in compliance if he put the corporation under which he owns his lobster licence into a blind trust.
The problem, MacEwen said, is with DFO's owner-operator policy, which dictates the person who owns a fishing licence has to be the one who fishes under it.
It's frustrating. I mean, one of the options to get a leave is if you're incarcerated.— Sidney MacEwen
Temporary exceptions can be granted — for example, for medical reasons. But while there are rules allowing exceptions on a case-by-case basis, MacEwen said in his conversations with DFO, it seemed unlikely he'd be granted one of those exceptions.
"It's frustrating. I mean, one of the options to get a leave is if you're incarcerated," said MacEwen. "If I was going to jail I can actually apply and get a two-year leave from my fishing fleet, and get a substitute operator. But she was saying it didn't look great for getting into cabinet that way."
A spokesperson for DFO told CBC a licensed fisherman who gets elected can serve as a politician while continuing to fish, and that there's nothing specific in DFO policy to prevent a fisherman from serving in cabinet.
However, DFO said a fisherman can only be granted the type of leave MacEwen wants to apply for to allow someone else to operate their fishing gear if it's under "circumstances that are beyond the control of the licence holder."
Without that leave, MacEwen said there are few options for fishermen to meet the requirements for cabinet ministers under the Conflict of Interest Act.
P.E.I. has tested these waters before. In 2008 Liberal MLA Allan Campbell sold his fishing licence to serve in the cabinet of Robert Ghiz.
Campbell was defeated in the 2011 election, and never returned to fishing.
Keeping it in the family
But MacEwen said he's committed to keeping the lobster licence he holds in the family.
"I had a brother-in-law that the fleet was supposed to go to him. He had passed two years ago. I started fishing with my father-in-law. And you know our goal was always for it to be passed on to me and I would pass on to [his] grandkids. So you know unfortunately for me selling it wasn't an option."
It's not clear if MacEwen might have been invited into cabinet had DFO's policies not been an impediment — he himself said it's up to the premier to make that call. When asked on Thursday, King said MacEwen would serve as the PCs house leader.
One thing MacEwen said he would consider if a call to cabinet might come in the future, is parking his boat, foregoing the revenue from lobster fishing for a time while continuing to make payments on his million-dollar investment.
Lobbying for change
But ultimately he said it shouldn't have to come down to that, and he'll ask the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association to lobby for changes.
"In future, I mean we've got young fishermen who are going out there, they're spending huge money on fleets for a couple months a year, then they go west to work. Well what if that person wants to get involved in public service? I think it's a conversation DFO needs to have."
A spokesperson for the association said the organization wouldn't comment, but that if it's requested to lobby DFO for changes to the owner-operator policy, it will take the issue to the association's board.