No conflict in funding for strangles tests for horses, says P.E.I.'s finance minister

·5 min read
P.E.I.'s Finance Minister Darlene Compton is a racehorse owner and also the cabinet minister responsible for the harness racing industry. She said the conflict of interest commissioner has cleared her of any conflict in that role. (Province of P.E.I. - image credit)
P.E.I.'s Finance Minister Darlene Compton is a racehorse owner and also the cabinet minister responsible for the harness racing industry. She said the conflict of interest commissioner has cleared her of any conflict in that role. (Province of P.E.I. - image credit)

P.E.I. Finance Minister Darlene Compton said she was cleared of any potential conflict by the province's conflict of interest commissioner after the Opposition raised questions Thursday about the minister's announcement of funding to pay for strangles tests for Island racehorses.

Strangles is a highly-infectious upper respiratory disease in horses caused by the bacteria Streptococcus equi.

The province is trying to contain an outbreak at the Red Shores racetrack in Charlottetown, and on Tuesday government announced $80,000 in funding to help pay for testing, with Compton quoted in the media release.

According to her conflict of interest disclosure, Compton is a co-owner of three standardbred horses, though on Thursday she put the number at two.

"Given the minister of finance has ownership shares in a pretty successful racehorse, the public is concerned about the minister's personal stakes in this," said Opposition finance critic Michele Beaton during question period Thursday.

Beaton tabled in the legislature clippings from the Summerside Journal-Pioneer showing two of Compton's horses, Rollwithitannie and Mr Reilly, won races last year at the Summerside Raceway.

"Were you worried about your investments in racehorses or your department's gambling profits and whether they would be compromised?" Beaton continued.

"I cannot believe that I'm up answering questions like this when we have very, very important issues to deal with in this province," Compton responded.

The P.E.I. government announced $80,000 to pay for strangles testing for standardbred horses earlier this week.
The P.E.I. government announced $80,000 to pay for strangles testing for standardbred horses earlier this week.(Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"I have disclosed to the public conflict of interest commissioner that I do have shares in two racehorses, and if the honourable member thinks it's successful, she's more than welcome to purchase them from me."

Afterwards Compton told reporters that when she was first appointed to cabinet she spoke with the conflict commissioner and "made it quite clear I would be the minister responsible for harness racing and I do have shares in horses, and it was made clear to me that as long as any of the decisions I made benefited the whole industry and not just myself, it was definitely not a conflict."

According to the province's Conflict of Interest Act, no MLA can take part in making a decision "if the member knows or reasonably should know that in the making of the decision there is an opportunity to further the member's private interest."

However, that prohibition does not apply to cases where the MLA could be considered to be among "a broad class of persons" to receive a benefit.

Beaton later told reporters she would ask the conflict commissioner to review Compton's case.

Only MLAs are allowed to ask the commissioner to conduct a review if they think a colleague may be in conflict, though there have been calls to allow the general public to do so.

The last request for a review from the commissioner led to a report published in 2008.

Questioning government priorities

The Opposition also questioned the speed with which government has responded to the strangles outbreak, offering up funding just weeks after the Red Shores racetrack went into lockdown.

"It was great to see the minister respond so quickly to the needs of the harness racing community in addressing the strangles outbreak, however, as my colleagues have noted, we have seen government drag its feet when it has come to addressing other priorities for Islanders," said Lynne Lund, MLA for Summerside-Wilmot.

Lund has been calling for more emergency shelter space in Summerside since she was elected in 2019.

She noted a community needs assessment found that "of the very few options for women in need of emergency shelter, all are operating at or near maximum capacity, with at least one noting that being at capacity means they are turning women away."

"Why do we need a community needs assessment if we want to keep Islanders off the streets, but we don't if we want to keep strangles off the racetrack?"

Minister of Social Development and Housing Brad Trivers told the house "we'll probably see more information coming in the near future" on the need for a women's shelter in Summerside.

No reason for recusal, minister says

Compton's conflict of interest disclosure statement also lists shares held in 13 individual companies, many of those operating in the oil and gas industry, which she indicated have been transferred into the control of her spouse.

Asked by reporters if she had ever recused herself from cabinet decisions because of those stock holdings, Compton said she had not, comparing the situation to other MLAs who might hold mutual funds that contain shares in oil and gas companies.

Opposition finance critic Michele Beaton said she will ask P.E.I.'s conflict of interest commissioner to conduct a review. The last such request from an Island MLA led to a report published in 2008.
Opposition finance critic Michele Beaton said she will ask P.E.I.'s conflict of interest commissioner to conduct a review. The last such request from an Island MLA led to a report published in 2008.(Legislative Assembly of P.E.I.)

"I don't see why there would be a reason to recuse. I'm guessing probably everyone in the legislature probably has mutual funds that has energy stocks in them.

"We'd all have to recuse ourselves from everything."

A government spokesperson said cabinet ministers will often recuse themselves from decisions on things like land purchases or government appointments if they feel they would be in conflict. While records of those recusals are kept, they aren't available for the public to see, something the Greens said should change.

"This is about transparency," said Beaton. "Islanders want transparency and that would be an easy way to give it to them."

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