Four years and $60-million later, the only real question is whether the Yarmouth ferry fandango resembles a Monty Python skit or an episode of Hogan’s Heroes. Oh, yes, and — please — when will this show finally be cancelled?
Monty Python was funnier. No. Check that. Monty Python is funny. Lloyd Hines? Not so much.Still, one can understand Tory MLA Tom Halman’s description of the latest twists, turns, twirls and top-this folly from the ongoing, never-ending Yarmouth-to-somewhere-in-Maine ferry fandango as “like a skit out of Monty Python.”
Personally, I prefer to think of Hines, Nova Scotia’s transportation minister, as the laughably, affably inept Sergeant Shultz from the popular 1960s TV sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes.
“I know nothing.”
And Hines does. Know. Nothing. Or at least he does a pretty good impression of knowing nothing whatsoever whenever someone asks him about the state and fate of the Yarmouth ferry service, which — in just its first four years of undependable service — has cost Nova Scotia taxpayers $60-million. And counting.
Keep on counting…
- The Chronicle Herald reported last week the taxpayer-funded annual cost for the ferry service in 2018-19 — which the province had budgeted at $10.9-million —actually more than doubled to $24-million.
- During this current fiscal year, we continue to pay for more renovations for a still-unapproved ferry terminal.
- Plus, we’ve now spent another $30,000 for an American lobbyist to not succeed at lobbying the US Customs and Border-Protection Services on our behalf.
- And, not to forget, The Cat, our ferry/monument to has been tied up in Yarmouth harbour since June, fully crewed and waiting — and waiting — at taxpayer expense.
And so it goes. As it has gone. World without ferry. World without end.
To get ourselves in the mood for the latest Hines-ian bafflegab, however, let’s open up the Hines-Schultz time-warp machine.
Back in December 2018, after the province refused the access-to-information coordinator’s request to make public how much it was paying private operator Bay Ferries to mismanage the tourist ferry on our behalf, Hines likened the government’s position to Coca-Cola’s refusal to release the formula for Coke. Huh?
“We end up getting beat up over it all the time,” Hines/Schultz declared, hang-dog-like, “but… in the world of business, information is very secretive.” Including, it seems, public information about how our government spends our money.
During that same encounter with reporters, Hines was asked why the contract with Bay Ferries to operate the Yarmouth ferry had to be so secret if the government’s management contracts for other services Bay Ferries operates have been made public,
“I’m not familiar with the file,” Hines deadpanned a la Sgt. I-know-nothing Shultz, and then added for good measure: “I haven’t been briefed on it and I don’t expect to be.” In other words, I know nothing, and I don’t want to know anything, thank you very much.
On Feb. 4, 2019, when reporters asked Hines if provincial taxpayers were on the hook for the full costs of all the renovations to ready the Bar Harbor, ME terminal, Hines did his best spot-on Schultz.
“I have no idea,” he said knowledgeably.
We now know Nova Scotians will end up shelling out at least $8.5-million of our tax dollars to (we hope) make the American terminal US Customs-and-Border-Protection-Services compliant.
Will those renovations be completed and approved in time for the 2019 ferry season, reporters pressed him back in February?
“There’s an element of uncertainty around what would happen if whatever — a Scud missile — came that took the operation out,” Sgt. Hines non-sequitured, “but at this point in time we are quite confident that this is a prudent expenditure of taxpayers’ money.”
Good to know.
Unfortunately, a metaphorical scud missile in the form of a US Border Services no-dock order scored a direct hit on what was supposed to be the much-vaunted June 21 opening of The Cat’s new Yarmouth-Bar Harbor schedule.
The ferry, Bay Ferries told us then, would begin its regular schedule in some undefined “mid-summer.”
In June, the province hired David Wilkins, a had-been US ambassador to Canada, at $10,000 a month to line up Washington meetings so we could lobby, cajole, beg and plead with Border Protection officials to Let Our Ferry Go.
Hines himself even flew to Washington in late June at the head of a government delegation for Wilkins-organized meetings with American officials, who apparently had no power to help.
Back home, when he was asked if he had received even a tentative date by which Border Protection might OK the terminal for use, Hines had to acknowledge he hadn’t. Still, he told reporters, he believed it was possible the ferry could be sailing by the end of July.
And that Santa was real.
The ferry did not sail in July.
The ferry did not sail in August.
Santa is still not real.
We have now definitively crossed over the end-of-summer, back-to-school, no-more-vacation-time, Labour-Day line in the Bay.
Despite that, Sgt. Happy Hines popped up out of the ether again last Thursday after a provincial cabinet meeting to once again offer upbeat-faux-news/much-better-scrum clips to summer news-starved reporters.
Even at this point, even knowing he would be asked, Hines couldn’t answer reporters’ simple questions about how much construction remains to be completed in Bar Harbor. He knew nothing.
He did insist, however, that Wilkins’ expensive lobbying had been helpful even though it clearly hadn’t. He had a “much better understanding” now of what was required, he said, leaving us to wonder what he didn’t understand before, and why. His Washington meetings, he added, “went a long way to improving the relationship. Which has helped us to where we are now.”
Which is… nowhere really.
Still, Hines refuses to leave our sinking ship. “If we can get some sails in this year,” he told reporters, “we intend to do that.” Perhaps sensing his audience’s involuntary eye-rolling, Hines was quick to add: “This is not a game… We are not just being facetious about this. We were very hopeful that we would be farther along prior to now.”
The good news is that the province’s contract with Wilkins expired Aug. 31, and won’t be renewed.
The bad news? I wish I knew nothing.
This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner September 3, 2019.