Gulf Islands bi-weekly newspaper Island Tides promises an eclectic mix of local, regional, national and international topics—serious and light-hearted—to give readers a “relaxed, informed ‘West Coast feeling“.
One of the contributors to Island Tides is Patrick Brown, a fascinating character, now a writer but perhaps a man still seeking his ultimate vocation. Born in pre-war England, he graduated from North Vancouver High School in 1953 and made stops in Ottawa, Calgary, London, the Middle East, Calgary and Vancouver before berthing his boat on Pender Island.
Brown is a regular traveller on BC Ferries and international business and consulting experience makes his comments about marine transit worthy of focused consideration. He understands that privatization of BC Ferries in 2003 was not about gaining service and value for taxpayers. It was a choice of political timidity, a renunciation of direct responsibility for a service vital to coastal communities. The party of “King Minus” had used ferry problems to sully Glen Clark’s NDP government and they intended to be insulated from future difficulties that would inevitably materialize.
This is Brown’s analysis of privatization in British Columbia:
The current provincial government, in power since 2001, has pursued privatization of its public services with ill considered enthusiasm. First it was BC Rail, ‘sold’ to CN in a transaction which remains surrounded by thick clouds of suspicion. This has been followed by BChydro: too big to be swallowed whole, it has been contracted out in piecemeal fashion, leaving it with billions of dollars in future obligations to private corporations. Highways and bridges in BC continue to be built through what is termed a ‘public-private partnership’, in which the government guarantees that the private partner will enjoy a perpetual monopoly and handsome returns on its investment.
Discussing coastal transportation, Brown states:
The entire structure—BC Ferries Services Inc, the Ferry Authority, and the Commission—was said to prevent ‘political interference’ with the ferry service. But its creation was, in itself, an act of long term political interference, together with dollops of deception and/or incompetence.
On this blog, I’ve previously referenced Washington State Ferries, an operation that carries more passengers and vehicles and pays a fraction of the executive salaries and benefits of BC Ferries. While leaders of the Canadian operation have focused on their own generous salaries, bonuses, pensions, and perks like private suites for NHL games, they forgot the real purpose of their work. Brown reminds them:
…the object of the coastal ferry service was to provide, in the words of the mandate of Washington State Ferries, ‘to provide safe, reliable, and efficient marine transportation for people and goods…’
An additional hint: WSF’s vision statement is: ‘to be the most efficient and affordable, customer-focused ferry operator in the world.’
I said above that BC Liberals used the ferry service against political opponents. Undoubtedly, criticism of the NDP aluminum ferry program was warranted but nothing like the level of censure that partisans still enjoy bringing to the fore as proof of their opponent’s everlasting incompetence.
In fact, the NDP achieved positive outcomes with the ferry system during the nineties. The two Spirit Class vessels, built in BC during Premier Mike Harcourt’s tenure, today provide cost efficient and effective transportation, superior to the German built ships commissioned by David Hahn’s organization. One of those newer vessels is seldom used, a $140 million white elephant.
However, there is a compact between Liberals and their supporters. The outrageous errors of current ferry managers and overseers is of little interest to corporate media. The insiders, protected by knowledge of truths uncomfortable to government, take advantage. Excessive salaries and benefits paid directly are common knowledge but less is known about other rewards.
In politics, favours frequently earn others in return and benefits given may create obligations needing repayment. This reality does not surprise and most citizens probably give tacit approval. However, there is an ever present risk that reasonable restraint will not be observed, that persons with power and influence will exercise muscle for inappropriate gain.
In the world of ferry operations, one is left to wonder about the munificence shown senior executives and board members. Here is an example that suggests further questions should be posed. The Board Chair of BC Ferry Services Inc. is one Donald P. Hayes. For this part-time obligation, he is paid handsomely, well over six figures annually.
Mr. Hayes is one of the family owners of a business operating in the province. Part of that operation is Hayes Heli-Log Services Ltd., a company indebted to the Ministry of Forestry, according to a Forest Accounts Receivable report of Oct. 11, 2011, more than $330,000 of which is aged over 84 days. Further detail is not published but the debt appears to be accruing interest at the rate of 6% p.a.