BC’s NDP government will accomplish something this spring it’s been hoping to do for almost two decades – bring the provincial ferry corporation back to heel.
There’s really no other way to interpret the newly-tabled Coastal Ferry Amendment Act than a direct power grab of BC Ferries by the government. It cherry-picks the one governance board that happens to be stacked with government appointees in the otherwise ultra-complicated oversight regime for BC Ferries, and then supercharges it with the power to “issue binding directions” to the ferry company on matters it “considers important” and “in support of the public interest, including the public’s interest in safe, reliable and affordable coastal ferry services in British Columbia.”
So, basically, carte blanche directives from the Transportation Minister or Premier’s Office.
“We have no interest in managing the day-to-day activities of the BC Ferry Corporation,” insisted Premier John Horgan.
“But we do believe, as the lone shareholder, that we have an obligation to coastal communities and ferry-dependent communities to make sure that they know that they have some say through their elected representatives -- not as drivers of the of the administration and operations of the service -- but to ensure that that these basic public tests are met. That's the objective of the legislation.”
Of course, it’s viewed in an entirely different way by the party that privatised BC Ferries in 2003.
“This should be terrifying for British Columbians,” said BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon. “I’m old enough to remember the $500 million fast ferries fiasco, which resulted in the building of several ships that were completely unusable, because of the NDP’s direction to the ferry company that they had to build these ferries and they somehow fancied themselves boat-builders.
“And those ferries still sit unused in the United Arab Emirates. They’ve been an embarrassment everywhere they’ve gone in the world.”
Two different views.
But in retrospect, you can see the trail of breadcrumbs that led the current government to this move several years ago.
The BC NDP was extremely unhappy with BC Ferries from the moment the party formed power in 2017. It launched a “soup to nuts” review of the corporation right away, having always opposed it being spun out from a Crown corporation into a quasi-private company by the BC Liberals.
“I really do hope that it is going to be extensive and does answer a lot of questions that people have about what has been happening at B.C. Ferries in these last number of years,” then-Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said in 2017.
Yet that review, as well as subsequent reviews, offered no easy solutions.
At the time, the NDP were trying very hard to keep the budget balanced, and the easiest solution – folding BC Ferries back into a Crown corporation – would have meant absorbing more than $1 billion in BC Ferries debt that would crowd out other spending on hospitals, schools, bridges and highways.
So the party slowly picked away at the issue.
It passed a bill in 2019 that added a “public interest” clause to the oversight of BC Ferries. Just as importantly, it doubled the number of government-appointees to the BC Ferry Authority.
At the time it was a bafflingly light bit of legislation that appeared to be nothing more than a smoke show. But fast forward two years later, to this month, and you see the point with a new bill that gives the now government-controlled Ferry Authority board the power to issue binding orders on anything it considers in the “public interest.”
Along the way, the government repeatedly clashed with BC Ferries executives.
That was never more evident than during the pandemic, when BC Ferries issued layoff notices to almost 1,400 casual and full-time staff due to public health restrictions caused by the pandemic that virtually eliminated travel and was leading to losses of more than $1 million per day.
Government was furious. At the time, it was trying to encourage businesses to retain their staff by accessing provincial and federal supports – and here was a major employer on the public dime issuing massive layoff notices without seeking approval from the minister.
The province managed to save face and avert most of the layoffs by getting BC Ferries access to support funding.
But the ferry corporation, in a bid to balance its books like the private company it’s regulated to be, then announced it was cutting 11 minor routes to Gulf Islands not written into the service contract. That might fly for a real private company, but not one in which the only shareholder is a provincial government scrambling to contain a pandemic. Internally, New Democrats were again irate at the corporation and its executives.
"Under the Coastal Ferry Act they have the ability to make certain decisions and certain scheduling decisions," Trevena said at the time in 2020. "I am the minister. I can't tell B.C. Ferries what to do."
Now though, under the new legislation, the government can do exactly that.
It took a while, but BC Ferries is back to where the BC NDP government always wanted it to be – under its direct control.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.