As the MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, I spend a lot of time traveling on ferries. Not as much as my constituents, but I have come to understand the ferry service differently since my election. For my Gulf Island constituents the ferry is their connection to home.
Life on Vancouver Island is similarly connected but we are a little more detached from the ferries as a lifeline. However, for my friends and neighbours, ferries are how they get to school and work each day. Ferries deliver groceries, bring people to doctor’s appointments, and connect small, local economies to the provincial market.
Ferry services are a part of our highway system and they are critical to our province; we must be able to expect that they are accessible, reliable, and operating in our best interest.
Unfortunately that’s not always the case, and the recent reforms of the Coastal Ferry Amendment Act are not a complete solution. In a report commissioned by the province, Blair Redlin asserts in many ways the need for the public interest to be a more prominent part of the decisions and service delivery.
BC Ferries has a unique governance structure; it is not a Crown Corporation, but an independent corporation with the province as its lone shareholder. The core concern of the corporation is its bottom line. Hanging in the balance is the key service we need it to deliver: the movement of people and goods.
The current structure, with multiple boards and complex reporting, is narrowly focused on profit margins. Many key decisions about aspects of the operation are made not with the public interest as the motivating force.
Vessel manufacturing is a prime example of where we can improve. Creating stable industry that produces family-supporting jobs is an interest for the provincial government. As our economy shifts away from dependence on resource extraction, we have to look more seriously at developing globally competitive industries. As a coastal province shipbuilding is an obvious opportunity.
As the situation is currently set up we miss the opportunity to cycle hundreds of millions of dollars through the BC economy by investing in building homegrown industrial capacity. Instead that money is wire transferred off-shore.
I understand that it is much easier to write about a robust shipbuilding industry, replete with a skilled workforce who are able to build our ferries, than it is to make it happen. But in this case the current governance structure of our ferry service does not consider the opportunity at all, because it is outside the scope of government and has a different priority.
If you have lived in British Columbia for more than 20 years you may be cringing at the thought of building ferries in our province. You will likely remember the fast-ferries fiasco – massive cost overruns and a final product that could not be operated on our coast. It does not have to be that way either. There are partnerships available to our provincial government that would create an environment for growth in the shipbuilding industry and keep revenue cycling locally through thousands of small and medium-sized businesses.
Despite regularly urging the former provincial government to change the governance structure of the ferries, the BC NDP government is now unwilling to do so. It’s a decision they made when they crafted the terms of reference for the Redlin report; Redlin was not to look at the governance structure but rather review the corporation as it is and make recommendations about how we can improve it.
As it turns out, his report is heavily focused on changes that re-engage the public interest. It is what the amending legislation attempts to balance, changing the outcomes while maintaining the status quo. Only time will tell us how successful the amendments are.
In the meantime, more than a third of our provincial economy requires a smoothly operating, reliable, convenient marine highway system. People need to know that they will be able to get home, not left behind at the terminal.
The ferry system will once again be tested by summer traffic and locals will still make their regular commute. I will continue to engage the ferry corporation and government to ensure the system we have delivers the best possible service it can. We are continuing to press government to move away from the narrow decisions that maintain the status quo. We need to widen the scope to what is possible.
Olsen is the BC Green Party MLA for Saanich North and the Islands.