Stunting 101: The games Bay Ferries plays

Bay Ferries says its Yarmouth ferry service’s real problem has nothing to do with the government’s over-subsidization or its own over-pricing. Blame it on the “nasty” opposition.

(Portland Press)

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner April 1, 2019.

Mark MacDonald knows which donkey to pin the blame on for the fact his Bay Ferries Ltd.’s money-sinking pot of a Yarmouth-Maine ferry service isn’t winning the accolades he believes it deserves from Nova Scotia taxpayers.

Forget the $61,187,310 in previously announced subsidies, grants and other goodies those same taxpayers have shovelled into the service since 2015, or the millions more Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines seems determined to pour down its drain in future.

None of that is to blame.

MacDonald is equally certain he knows why American vacationers may not be booking their Nova Scotia getaway passage aboard his pleasure ferry in nearly the numbers we subsidy-paying taxpayers hoped they would.

It has nothing — nada — to do with the ferry’s vacation sticker-shock price: $920 USD round-trip fare for a family of 2 adults, 2 children and 1 car, plus a bonus $10 USD “port fee” per passenger, which will be charged to all passengers — including even otherwise “travel-free” children under five — for each leg of the journey. (Ticket prices would apparently be considerably higher if not for the $312 per-passenger subsidy we’ve been shelling out to Bay Ferries for the last three years of Yarmouth-Portland service.)

The real culprit, MacDonald suggests, is none of the above. It’s the “nasty” and “excessive” rhetoric coming from the opposition.

“The problem,” he told the legislature’s natural resources and economic development committee last week, “is that our customers, partners, to some degree investors in the community… can’t ignore those comments. It goes to our customers on the U.S. side and it goes to the people we’re trying to do business with on the U.S. side, whether they be towns or cities or federal agencies.”

MacDonald was particularly ticked about what he described as a “stunt” by PC leader Tim Houston.

In February, the Tories made a photo-op splash of going to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to appeal the McNeil government’s ongoing refusal to release information on management fees and potential bonuses it is paying Bay Ferries under the terms of a secret 10-year deal.

Ongoing refusal?

In 2016, the Tories — as well as journalists from Global and allnovascotia.com — filed freedom of information requests to pry that information from the Transportation Department.

Denied.

Two years later, in December 2018, the province’s privacy commissioner finally released her report on their various appeals of the government’s initial rejection. In it, Catherine Tully called on the government to make the information public. Still. Again.

Denied. Still. Again.

Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines, who grandly and ludicrously invoked Coca Cola’s “secret formula” to explain to reporters why he still wouldn’t hand over the documents, put the ultimate responsibility squarely on Bay Ferries.

“We end up getting beat up over it all the time,” he told reporters, “but we do have to respect the fact that these are agreements that are made with people that we do business with and, in the world of business, information is very secretive.”

Which means? It means MacDonald and Bay Ferries could have saved us all the drama and “stunts,” and simply asked the government to make the damned information public as it should have done in the first place.

Instead, Bay Ferries last month pulled a stunt of its own, attempting to have the Tory appeal thrown out of court on a technicality instead of arguing the case on its merits.

The two sides are expected to be back in court today (Monday).

It should not be lost on anyone that today is April Fool’s Day. The question is, who is the fool?

PS — On April 5, a judge said no to Bay Ferries technicality stunt. The case will proceed.

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