Oceanex challenge threatens Terms of Union
Transport Action Atlantic president calls on province to lead defence of federal subsidies to Marine Atlantic
The head of a transportation advocacy group wants Newfoundland and Labrador’s government to join the fray in a fight over subsidies to Marine Atlantic.
Ted Bartlett, president of Transport Action Atlantic, said a challenge to the subsidies by Oceanex could affect everyone in the province.
“Really what’s happening here is the Terms of Union are being threatened,” Bartlett said.
He said he couldn’t understand why the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have not been more vocal about that threat.
“It has serious implications for generations to come as far as the cost of living is concerned,” he said.
Bartlett said the provincial government needs to get involved in the court challenge and speak for the people it represents.
He said while Transport Canada is the defendant in Oceanex’s court challenge, for all practical purposes the residents of Newfoundland and Labrador are defendants as well.
“They’re the ones who are going to be the big loser if the plaintiff is successful in this case,” he said. “The defence has got to be led by the provincial government.”
Bartlett said the province should seek intervener status in the case and let its voice be heard.
“They owe that to the people who elected them,” he said.
In a letter to the editor published in the April 11 edition of The Gulf News, Bartlett stated Oceanex was, in effect, “asking the Federal Court of Canada to negate the spirit of the terms of union.”
He said Term 32, which deals with a ferry service between North Sydney and Port aux Basques, was drafted with the intent of equalizing the cost of living in Newfoundland with the other Atlantic provinces.
“I guess what Oceanex is saying is that Term 32 is no longer valid,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett said he has no problem with Oceanex making a profit by providing a service not offered by Marine Atlantic.
He said the cost of moving a trailer from North Sydney to Port aux Basques via Marine Atlantic should not be greater than the cost of hauling a trailer over 185 kilometres of highway, roughly the distance the ferry travels.
He said Marine Atlantic is likely charging more than that for trailers coming across the strait.
“For anyone to say that Marine Atlantic is not charging enough, that they should be charging more, this is unconscionable,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett worked for Marine Atlantic for 23 years in a public relations role, and said rates were always a sensitive subject.
He said Marine Atlantic’s mandated cost-recovery percentage is also a problem. He said the percentage of costs Marine Atlantic is required to recover has gone from less than half 20 years ago to about 65 per cent.
He said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to agree the cost-recovery demands were too high and had indicated as much in a response to then-premier Paul Davis’s letter to federal party leaders prior to last fall’s election.
“With the Conservative government fixated on cutting expenditures at all costs and demanding an unreasonable percentage of cost recovery from Marine Atlantic, the Crown corporation that runs the ferry was forced to increase its fares by a total of 11 per cent over the past three years,” Trudeau’s reply stated.
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said the provincial government is monitoring the situation and will determine a course of action in the future.
“I’m glad to see people speaking out,” Parsons said. “The more people we have speaking out, the better.”
Parsons said the people of the southwest coast have often been the strongest voice regarding concerns about Marine Atlantic.
“That’s not surprising,” he said. “I don’t think many people fully grasp the magnitude of Marine Atlantic’s importance to our province.”
The president of Transport Action Atlantic says a court challenge to Marine Atlantic’s freight rates threatens the Terms of Union.