John Risley: the hypocrisy of the super well-done-by

Billionaire John Risley wants the government to get on with the job of twinning the highway to his mansion. Just don’t tax him to do it.

John Risley

I was scrolling/strolling/trolling through my weekend news feed recently when I stumbled upon this item from the Macdonald Notebook , a business-friendly news site run by former allnovascotia journalist Andrew Macdonald. The story was headlined: “John Risley This Week: Bemoans Tedious Delays of Highway Twinning in Nova Scotia.”

I almost upchucked my Brand Buds.

Risley, of course, is a notorious bemoaner, a whinger of the first water when it comes to all things having to do with government spending and decision-making — except, that is when such spending or decisioning helps him become even richer than he already is, which has been more often than not.

With a net worth of $1.2 billion, Risley is one of Nova Scotia’s richest men, ranked 88th on a recent Canadian Business “definitive” ranking of Canada’s 100 richest people. He owns a country house in Chester, “one of the largest houses in Nova Scotia,” inside of which you could probably squeeze two dozen affordable housing units, as well as a 107-metre, $350-million US yacht currently on order from Norway, and even his own fleet of private jets.

In spite of that, Risley likes to be disputatious, even over what might seem, to mere mortals, like a billionaire’s table scraps. In 2018, for example, Risley appeared personally in provincial small claims court to argue against a $2,965.62 claim from a tradesman. He “mostly lost.”

That same year, Risley sued a Saudi businessman for “fraudulent misrepresentation” in a business deal Risley claimed had cost his company $15 million CAD. In October of this year, the suit was settled and Risley walked back his accusations. “There was no fraud or conspiracy involved,” Risley jogged it back in his official statement, “rather a business dispute resulting from a series of interactions and proposed ventures, which did not materialize as all had hoped.”

None of which is to suggest Risley isn’t astute. The origin story of Risley’s humble beginnings as a college dropout peddling fresh lobster with his brother-in-law from the back of a pickup truck beside the Bedford Highway has been told and retold hundreds of times by journalists, including at least a couple of times by me.

Risley leveraged hard work and business savvy (and not a little government help) into Clearwater Seafoods, which became “one of the world’s largest vertically-integrated seafood companies.” Last month, Clearwater, now publicly traded, announced it had been sold for $1 billion to a consortium of First Nations and BC-based Premium Seafoods. Once that sale is finally done and dusted, Risley might even move up a few notches in Canada’s rich-man rankings.

But I digress.

Back to the Macdonald Notebook and Risley’s current bemoanings.

Risley, who has homes in both Chester and Halifax, was asked about a newly twinned 11-kilometre section of Highway 103 between Tantallon and Ingramport on the road between Halifax and Chester. While acknowledging the opening of the highway last month is “very welcome,” Risley quickly segued into his high dudgeon, bemoaner mode.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he whinged. “It is disgraceful to see it so long coming… Why it has taken them so long to get it done is a matter, frankly, of poor public policy on behalf of provincial governments.”

OK. Now we know.

Risley described his south shore highway on “Sunday coming back into Halifax, or Friday night leaving… I mean it’s a parking lot.”

As is his wont, Risley knew exactly what governments should do. “If we learned one thing from the Chinese, it’s about the importance of infrastructure,” he told Macdonald. “Infrastructure is a huge stimulus to economic activity, infrastructure of all sorts, whether it is twinned highways or high-speed rail, or new airports. But you cannot go to China, as I have been doing for 30 years, without being enormously impressed, as I have seen, by the speed at which they have developed new infrastructure, and that is a lesson for the rest of the world.”

Uh… let’s stop here for a moment.

Infrastructure costs money. Lots of it. Risley seemed to suggest to Macdonald the simple answer to that — as with most things — is to turn the job over to the private sector. But the reality is that most of China’s massive spending on infrastructure — $28 trillion US by 2040 — has come from the state.

And then wait one more moment. According to the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, the supposition that such massive spending on infrastructure has created economic value in China is a fallacy.

But I digress again…

Back to Risley. Let’s count the many and various ways in which his whinging whacks up against his own hypocrisy.

In 2015 when the province killed the Nova Scotia Film Tax Credit, which had generated thousands of well-paying jobs in the culture sector, you may recall that Risley was first in line to declare his support for the government cuts, calling the tax credit “absolute nonsense. The government cannot afford to be subsidizing any industry to such an extent.”

My colleague, Tim Bousquet, responded with a partial accounting of the millions in “unconditionally unrepayable,” “conditionally repayable” and occasionally maybe someday repayable federal and provincial loans, grants, contributions and guarantees to Risley’s various ventures, including Clearwater and Ocean Nutrition, the world’s largest Omega-3 nutritional supplements manufacturer.

“This is how you become a billionaire in Nova Scotia,” Tim wrote. “You get the taxpayer to finance you.”

I may have missed it, but I don’t recall seeing any stories about how Risley intended to share with taxpayers some of the rewards he reaped from selling Ocean Nutrition to Royal DSM in 2012 for $600 million, or from Clearwater’s $1-billion sale this year.

Meanwhile, back at the counting-house, Risley does his best to pay as little in tax as possible. While I don’t have a clue what he does or doesn’t pay, I think this example may be instructive about his general approach. In 2011, the Chronicle Herald’s Chris Lambie documented, Risley used a shell company to try to “avoid paying federal taxes on a $30 million line of credit” he’d used to construct a previous yacht.

So it was, is, and perhaps ever will be.

As I continued my scroll/stroll/troll through my news feed that morning, I came across this report from Canadians for Tax Fairness: It’s Time to Tax Extreme Wealth Inequality. In the past decade,  its report said, “the number and wealth of Canada’s billionaires has more than doubled. Only the top one per cent increased their share of total wealth from 2010 to 2019 while the share of all other groups declined.” During the April-October period of the current pandemic, the wealth of Canada’s biggest billionaires even grew by 28 per cent.

The tax lobby group, which noted Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals have committed to identifying ways to tax away that extreme wealth inequality, offered Ottawa some suggestions. “A progressive annual wealth tax on the richest Canadians, on wealth of over $10 million, could generate $20 billion annually,” it pointed out. “Other progressive tax reforms such as closing tax loopholes and tackling tax havens could raise billions more.”

Maybe we could use some of those billions to twin those highways John Risley is so keen on. Or not.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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