As if the Conservative plan to bribe rich tobacco farmers with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to stop growing a deadly crop didn’t seem dumb enough in the first place, we now find out that it’s even dumber than thought: many (most?) took the taxpayer money and went right on growing tobacco:
When the federal government offered $286-million in buyouts to Ontario's tobacco growers last year, the vast majority took the payments, designed to usher them out of a fast-shrinking industry. Given an average of $275,000 each, they were supposed to plant another crop, or maybe even try a different line of work entirely, federal ministers said at the time.
The Tobacco Transition Program has not worked out that way. In the first season since the government issued those payments, just as much tobacco has been harvested as the year before, and as many as 100 of the farmers who took the buyout still seem involved in producing tobacco.
In fact, federal officials have indicated buyout recipients can legally rent their land and machinery -- or even hire themselves out as employees to holders of new tobacco-growing licences.
In many cases, sources say, the buyout recipients are farming the same land as always after relatives or acquaintances -- some of them with full-time jobs in other places -- obtained a licence to grow.
It seems likely this program has more to do with boosting Conservative fortunes in South-Western Ontario than anything else. Of course it had to be done stealthily; pitching it as stimulus for the tobacco industry isn’t exactly a public relations winner.
And it’s not like the government can say it didn’t see these problems coming. Last March, it was informed of the loopholes in the program and how they were being taken advantage of. And it did nothing.
However, industry insiders say many farmers are taking advantage of the fact they can transfer their quota to anyone who is not their spouse or dependent child, and then apply for a licence to produce tobacco under a new regime being developed by the Ontario government.
"Pretty much everybody's doing it," said one Ontario tobacco farmer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution within the farming community.
"I'll give you an example. You own tobacco quota. You want to continue to grow tobacco, so what you do is you transfer your quota to me, but I don't even grow tobacco. I take the buyout and give you the dollars back, so now you're eligible for a licence to grow tobacco, and plus you get all that money."
It seems pretty clear where Conservative priorities lay, however, and it’s not with taxpayers.