Every so often, rightly or wrongly, a government-supported business venture becomes a political football.
From Sydney Steel, to SNC-Lavalin, we’ve seen decades’ worth of fall-out from government intervention in the business community. Occasionally, however, the sticks we use to beat our overlords in Halifax and Ottawa on this topic wind up shattering in our own hands as we realize that the issue isn’t a matter of black and white, but a situation with several subtle shades of grey.
Or, more specifically, shades of blue and green, in the case of the Atlantic waters travelled by the much-pilloried Nova Scotia-to-Maine ferry service, The CAT.
The provincial Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (DTIR) raised eyebrows this month when its minister, Strait area MLA Lloyd Hines, confirmed that the province would spend $8.5 million to renovate a ferry terminal in Bar Harbour, in anticipation of The CAT’s relocation of its U.S. drop-off point from the city of Portland. That figure also includes an estimated $600,000 in American funds for the salaries of U.S. customs officials required for the ferry’s smooth operation, and it comes on top of $13.5 million in provincial funds already designated for the ferry service’s 2019 season.
You might wonder why the federal government and the governing bodies running both Maine and the United States refused to kick in any money to make this service work? You’d be right to wonder, and you’d be right to speculate that perhaps Hines and his TIR department could have dug in their heels and tried to strike a better deal?
But this is the deal we have. Its timing isn’t ideal, given that the newly-minted leader of the Opposition Tories, Tim Houston, launched a lawsuit against the provincial government this past winter, demanding access to documents involved in the new five-year agreement for Yarmouth-based Bay Ferries. The issue is also sure to generate fireworks when it comes up at the legislature’s Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee later this spring.
And the ferry flap is dominating social media these days. Curiously, one of the more pointed discussions on the new deal for The CAT came on the Facebook page of a friend of mine from Pictou County, where Tim Houston has served as a PC MLA for the past six years. Some of the commenters even went so far as to suggest that the provincial and federal governments have never spent, and will never spend, the kind of money in Pictou County that the Liberals have spent on the Yarmouth-to-Maine ferry service in their six years in office.
What? The same Pictou County that has a publicly-supported private company, Northumberland Ferries Limited, continuing to take thousands of passengers a year back and forth between Caribou and Wood Islands, Prince Edward Island? The same Pictou County that will finally see the return of a two-ferry system with the new federal budget’s pledge to replace the MV Holiday Island, which has experienced mechanical trouble since 2014 and been out-of-service for the past three years?
Apart from missing this obvious bit of hypocrisy, perhaps Nova Scotia Tories might want to recall that the guy Houston replaced, Jamie Baillie, used the Yarmouth ferry service so frequently as a dump-Stephen-McNeil slogan that three prominent Yarmouth County members of his own party – including former Yarmouth mayor and PC candidate Charles Crosby – sent Baillie a letter in 2016, urging him to back off The CAT.
The NDP, who also came out swinging against the Bar Harbour terminal-renovation agreement last week, might also want to remember that their hands aren’t clean when it comes to controversial public investments in private enterprise. The proof is right here on our Strait area shorelines, in the form of the $124.5 million renewable-loans package Darrell Dexter’s government offered to what is now Port Hawkesbury Paper.
Perhaps the NDP is also trying to make people forget the impact the four-year-long Dexter-led shutdown of the Yarmouth ferry service had on the South Shore economy, or the reality that Yarmouth’s business community is still nervously looking over its shoulder. Last month, a hotel operator in nearby Argyle told CBC News that it “isn’t the easiest thing” for businesses and the tourism and accommodations industry to secure capital for expansions, given The CAT’s precarious, and increasingly-political, position.
Sorry, folks – I won’t add fuel to that fire. Port Hawkesbury Paper got to prove itself, and now its order paper is full, nearly seven years into its decade-long loan arrangement with the province. I anticipate a similar story for Bay Ferries, and I also look forward to the day when politicians seeking headlines and votes won’t pit one part of our province against another.
We’d get a lot further if we all sailed together at times like these.