10 June 2005

The Tragedy of FPI

Halfway through the debate on changes to legislation governing Fishery Products International Limited (FPI), the whole focus has shifted to Harbour Breton, the community where FPI has closed the town's major employment source.

Debate isn't really the word for it, though. The whole thing has become a sort of extortion racket. Politicians including Premier Danny Williams are insisting that FPI has to put something back in Harbour Breton, on the province's south coast as a price for their vote.

Someone tossed the extortion theme at me last night in a telephone call in which I listened to someone else rant. It was a pleasant change.

David Cochrane's debrief on The Fisheries Broadcast picked up the same idea, although I don't think he called it extortion. I think the word shakedown is closer to the truth.

Just to finish off the idea, here's a section from the Criminal Code of Canada that might potentially be applicable to some of the comments Premier Williams has been making. It is illegal, ladies and gentlemen to either entice a legislator to vote a certain way in exchange for something or to solicit such an inducement.

Under section 121 (1)(a)(ii), it is an offence for an official to demand or seek any benefit for himself or another person in exchange for the performance of his duties and responsibilities.

But underneath all that is a more significant issue highlighted in a CBC report also by David Cochrane on the whole FPI issue. That link requires RealPlayer, by the way.

In the report, Derrick Rowe points out that the whole of FPI has a stock market value of about $120 million. This makes it hard for the company to raise capital - i.e. cash - in order to rebuild the harvesting and processing sector.

FPI's plan to create an income trust and let new investors into the American marketing division will raise US$100 million. Rowe rightly points out that the secondary processing division is much more attractive to investors than a company that is burdened with all the political baggage FPI carries around.

The simple fact is that FPI is not a private sector company. It is a leftover exercise in social engineering; a social assistance program. It is, to be perfectly accurate, a Crown corporation in all but name only.

The reason why FPI continues to flounder and rural communities suffer has less to do with the closure of Harbour Breton and more with the political interference of successive governments since Brian Peckford that have prevented FPI from being a private sector company based in this province.

Rather than surging ahead as Fortis has done, FPI flops about like a Newfoundland Farm Products chicken simply because any decision taken by its board of directors for the benefit of the company can be over-ruled by any handful of people with the collective business experience of...well...a flounder. Worse still, even otherwise sensible politicians can be overwhelmed by the clouds of political gadflies that swarm around the carcass of thought called afternoon radio call-in shows.

Their motivation is little more than the classic Newfoundland one: spread what little there is of something as thinly as possible so that everyone gets a little bit of it, all the while blaming the Evil Ottawa for everything from the Plague of Locusts to the dismal writing on Hatching, Matching and Dispatching.

This evening that little bit may cost the province upwards of $10 million to buy an overvalued redfish quota so that an antiquated plant can crank up and make stamps.

There are too many fish plants for the total volume of landings. We don't need more. The result of this exercise will be to perpetuate a situation where people cannot make a decent living in rural Newfoundland without massive government subsidies. The whole place goes in the hole as a consequence and to what end?

In 20 years time - or more likely in five - the next Premier will be looking to prop up one or two or three more communities. Or like John Efford, he'll be handing out processing licenses to all comers. That wouldn't be so bad if the license went with a simple warning label: "sink or swim; you're on your own". Instead, though, every license comes backstopped by more and more subsidies and handouts and make-work projects.

No wonder the province is broke.

Rather than debating an amendment to the FPI bill, government should have repealed the damn thing.

Take control over a potentially very lucrative local company away from the legions of politicians and give to people who can make it into an international company that people are willing to invest in. Take a look at this link to see what can happen when a small country makes smart choices about its fishing industry. FPI could be every bit as successful globally as Sanford Limited - if only we could see beyond the end of the wharf.

As it stands now, all the provincial government has succeeded in doing is strangling another bit of life out of the very company everyone claims is the backbone of our provincial economy.

Oliver Langdon et al can point to unfulfilled promises as they vote against Derrick Rowe's proposal; truth is politicans can only blame themselves for the mess they perpetuate.

No matter what happens in the vote tomorrow, all we have succeeded in doing is making FPI a less valuable commodity in the eyes of investors. The company has less money and is less able to do what its board and managers want to do to be successful.

And five years from now we will still be fretting over the future of "rural" Newfoundland.

That is the real tragedy of the FPI debate.