There were both positive and negative highlights during a recent trip to Ottawa to speak on the financial impact of federally mandated Marine Atlantic cost recovery, along with other issues.
Port aux Basques Mayor John Spencer and Coun. Jim Lane spoke before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Community as part of the town’s latest effort to lobby for an end to cost recovery and return the ferry service at more affordable levels.
Representation from the North Shore of Québec, the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce and the Cape Breton Chamber of Commerce also made presentations. Spencer noted the overall theme of the presentations revolved around the impact of climate change and the need for all levels of government to seek mediation initiatives to protect the integrity of the national transportation corridor.
“A concern now, though, is the time frame for action. It is imperative that the rest of the province needs to voice their opinion to their MHAs and MPs regarding cost-recovery, fuel-surcharge and climate change to ensure planning and initiatives move forward to deal with challenges in a timely manner,” Spencer told councillors during their May 21 meeting.
Lane agreed. “We are the only people, this island, under the terms of confederation, and we’re the only ones who’ve got to do a cost recovery.”
Lane says the federal government kept its promise when it built a $7.2-billion bridge in Montreal that won’t include tolls. He also says Via Rail were granted $738 million and weren’t subjected to cost-recovery initiatives either.
“The cost of living went up 19.2 per cent since 2007. You know how much the fares went up – 107 per cent. So they’re stealing from us really. They’re taking from Newfoundlanders, and they’ve got us bottlenecked. We can’t get no traffic here because it’s too expensive,” declared Lane.
Spencer said that it was “kind of ironic” that while they were presenting their argument, Minister Marc Garneau was in front of the senate presenting an argument for the continued ban of tanker traffic on the West Coast.
“His argument for why the Liberals are sticking by their ban is that it was a campaign promise in 2015,” reported Spencer. “What we’re saying to the federal Liberals is that you made a promise to us as well in 2015.”
A failed court challenge by Oceanex in 2018 to remove the government subsidy for Marine Atlantic also hinged, at least in part, on cost recovery. Both Lane and Spencer reviewed the decision, which included testimony from a historian on behalf of the government.
“His argument that won the case against Oceanex was that in every point that he made was that there was no expectation of cost recovery. From the terms of confederation, even before confederation, the government was paying for that service,” said Lane.
“All through his research, which Transport Canada used to fight Sid Hynes (executive chairman of Oceanex) was no cost recovery,” agreed Spencer. “As a matter of fact, the subsidy is designed to raise the standard of living for Newfoundland and Labrador with recognition of our higher cost of living.”
In a follow up email to The Gulf News, Spencer wrote that given the number of witnesses and the range of interests, there were few direct questions surrounding cost recovery and that Lane gave a solid presentation on the issue’s historical context.
“Plus I was able to relay to committee the unfairness surrounding the fuel-surcharge using the example of how everyone from those inside a vehicle from a car of two to a bus of 50 will pay a 'head tax ' plus the tax on the vehicle above the basic fare. We were able to submit our brief for committee members,” shared Spencer. “Ironically, MP (Churence) Rogers and MP Gudie (Hutchings) were both surprised when we produced the legal document written for Transport Canada, that Transport Canada used in the Oceanex challenge, stating when NL joined Canada in 1949 there was no expectation of cost recovery.”
Spencer admitted there was a bit of unwelcome news for the town itself, confirming further delay in construction of the new administration building.
“The immediate priority for Marine Atlantic will be the procurement of a new vessel,” noted Spencer. “The big issue now is they’ve got four weeks to get that procurement done for that vessel.”
In partnership with Marine Atlantic, the town is also continuing to lobby for funding to remove Vardy’s Island which sits in the middle of the harbour.
“I’m pleased as punch we’re getting a new boat, but you know what? We need a place to turn it around,” said Lane.
'Not a dream'
Marine Atlantic’s revenues may take another hit if the tunnel between Newfoundland and Labrador continues to gain traction. The idea of a great circular route for the island is not going away anytime soon, according to Spencer.
“The Chunnel dream is not a dream,” said the mayor. “The Chunnel deal is very real and that became a major portion of the discussions.”
Lane said the province is already $14 billion in debt and adding another $1.7 billion for the Chunnel is just going to make the burden worse for taxpayers.
Spencer is already reaching out via email to his counterparts in other communities, including Cape Breton, where he shared that plans for the construction have already passed the design stage.
“A recent study costing $20 million has proven it can be done."
He added N.L.'s premier and the province of Quebec are on record supporting the Chunnel and federal Liberals have it listed among pre-election resolutions.
"Our premier is on record stating the impact on Port aux Basques will be a diversion of 60 per cent of its current container traffic. This would translate in a major impact of job loss in both communities.”
Moving forward, Spencer says the focus is on continuing to raise support, especially with a federal election looming this fall.
“Where do we go from here? The lobby effort supported by 99 per cent of MNL members will continue. It will be an election issue. As one writer described using the analogy of bookends, Port aux Basques is on board, St. John's is on board. Cost recovery has a direct impact on the lives of virtually every person living in N.L. Our goal will be to expand the lobby to fill the bookshelf with supporters of the end to cost recovery.”