Friday, April 12, 2019

MLA Rice celebrates debate on Coastal Ferries Act Amendments at Legislature

Moving forward with amendments to the Coastal Ferries Act made for a good portion of Thursday's afternoon discussion period at the Legislature, with North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice speaking to the theme in praise of the NDP governments recent moves when it comes to ferry transportation for coastal communities.

You can review the text of the amendments to Bill 25 and chart its progress through the legislature website here.

The North Coast MLA covered a wide swath of issues during the course of her mid afternoon presentation, which was mixed with one part celebration of the new approach, combined with some recollections of what Ms. Rice would note were what she saw as darker days for ferry travellers from the days of the Liberals.

British Columbians deserve a ferry service model that puts people first. People living in coastal communities depend on this vital service provided by B.C. Ferries. But for many years they experienced service cuts and skyrocketing rates. These amendments to the Coastal Ferry Act will put people at the heart of decision-making. These are the Minister of Transportation's words. I agree 100 percent. I have to say that I'm so pleased she's here today, because I am so honoured to be speaking to her bill today. 

It is going to dramatically transform the lives of my constituents on the north coast and Haida Gwaii and in the Central Coast — for many rural and remote communities, most of which are Indigenous, most of which don't enjoy the wealth from the interior of the province, like the member from Kelowna was speaking about. 

So this is transformational, not just for economics.  It improves health. It improves mental health and wellness. And it improves the social ties that people are privileged to have in other parts of the province and that have been cut off by decisions made by the previous government in years past.

Ms. Rice also directed some attention as to how the changes will capture the spirit and recommendations of the Redlin report on Coastal Ferries, which was released earlier this year,, with the North Coast MLA putting her focus on the impact on the BC Ferry Authority.

The legislation captures several amendments that will signal an emphasis on public interest — the key words here being "public interest" within the Coastal Ferry Act — but it's also intended to capture the government's broader goals, which are about people. 

 The amendments are based on the recommendations in Blair Redlin's coastal ferry review. I want my constituents at home, who haven't had a chance to read through the thick report, to know that some of the highlights of these amendments include requiring the B.C. ferries commissioner to prioritize the public interest when regulating ferry services, including the consideration of the province's greenhouse gas emission targets. It's pretty progressive. 

Other highlights include facilitating the participation of consumer advocates in the B.C. Ferry Commissioner's regulatory processes to consider the needs of people in the review of ferry services. Simply put, that allows public participation, which before many people were unable to do before because they simply couldn't afford to gather up their resources and make a submission. 

Now we're going to actually make resources available so that the public can participate and guide the services that they rely on. The amendments to this act increase the number of B.C. Ferry Authority directors appointed by government from two to four to bring a greater public interest perspective in the role of B.C. Ferries shareholders. 

It ensures that the B.C. Ferry Authority oversees the strategic direction of B.C. Ferries in support of the public interest, including safe, reliable and affordable coastal ferry service in British Columbia, and it requires the B.C. Ferry Authority to set term limits when appointing directors to the B.C. Ferries Services board to improve the oversight of B.C. Ferries

After offering a few notes related to the salaries of BC Ferries upper management and the need for more oversight towards the Ferry System, Ms. Rice addressed the recent restoration of sailings and additions to the schedules for the coastal routes and the impact it will have on the North Coast and Haida Gwaii to frame some of the themes for her presentation to the Chamber.

Once enforced, these amendments are intended to reframe the model to better reflect the public interest. I keep saying that, but that's exactly what this is about. And the view that ferry services are an integral part of the transportation network…. They are part of our marine highway — no bones about it. 

I can't believe we've actually even had that debate in the past. However, we should talk about some of our recent successes, which, again, I profusely and profoundly thank the Minister of Transportation for.  I speak on behalf of my constituents. 

The most amount of mail I've ever received in six years as an MLA had to do with how the service cuts and skyrocketing fares have impacted my constituents. And the most amount of positive emails I've ever received in my six years as MLA were letters of thanks and congratulations and dramatic appreciation for what our government has done to improve the lives of coastal communities. 

We're restoring the sailings on the majority of ferry routes that were cut in 2014. That will see over 2,700 additional round trips added to the schedules on ten minor and northern routes  And we're providing funding to B.C. Ferries to reduce fares on the smaller and northern routes, where we have already done that, by 15 percent and freezing the fares on the major routes and Fares will continue to be frozen this year.

To reinforce her point on the reaction of the North Coast and Haida Gwaii Ms. Rice recounted some of the mail she has received from constituents from the changes that have been announced already by BC Ferries.

Ms. Rice also took advantage of he time in the Chamber to revisit some of the history for BC Ferries as well as to renew some past grievances with the Christy Clark era Liberals.

I wanted to talk about where we've come from and where we're going. I mean, the cuts that we're talking about that were such a dramatic blow to my constituents in 2014 were all in the name of seeking efficiencies. It was $19 million worth of seeking efficiencies. 

The previous government made reckless service cuts and hiked our fares for years. For example, in 2003, it was $223 to go from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert in a car, and by 2016, that more than doubled to $469. We're looking at ferry increases of over 100 percent in just the short four years that the B.C. Liberals had and were governing in my last term as MLA. 

 They drove up the fares repeatedly. They were going up so much that I couldn't keep track of them and putting coastal communities at a disadvantage. It was costly, and it was unfair. Fares doubled. It led to a huge decline in ridership, and it cost billions of dollars in economic activity.

In 2014, they pressed ahead with this $19 million in service reductions, cutting sailings on 13 routes, including all four that service my communities in the north coast, without even consulting with them. They essentially came and said, "We're doing a consultation in your communities," but all the decisions were made. They just said: "How do you want to make it different? Here's the decision, but here we are consulting. Check off a box." 

It was hugely insulting. People were crying. It was so painful to attend these meetings. And they did this without a socioeconomic impact analysis. In fact, it took UBCM to do their own socioeconomic impact analysis, and they demonstrated that these cuts were costing the British Columbia economy billions of dollars — not an "m," a "b," billions of dollars. 

They did no analysis to look at how these impacts to coastal communities were actually impacting the Interior, where people took circle routes — for example, from Port Hardy to Bella Coola and Bella Bella. They do a circle through the Interior, up Highway 20, through Williams Lake and back down. They do the same thing through Prince Rupert, across over to Prince George and back down. They did no economic impact analysis of what the Interior communities were experiencing. 

Towards the conclusion of her remarks fro her near twenty minute address, she pointed to how the past service levels created concerns among the medical community and how the service levels and cost of access to it created hardships for a number of residents, particularly those of Haida Gwaii and central coast communities.

They didn't look at the impacts to health. I had physicians phoning me in Prince Rupert, saying: "Jennifer, you have constituents and I have patients in Haida Gwaii who are neglecting their health. They are not coming to see me in Prince Rupert — and they desperately need to see me — because they can't afford to stay in a hotel for four days in Prince Rupert, or they're fearful of the cuts or that they won't be able to get back home." 

They desperately needed medical care, and they were neglecting it. They didn't look at the tourism sector as a whole. They didn't look at it, definitely, for coastal communities. Tens of thousands of people signed petitions demanding a freeze and a rollback of fares. They wanted their services reinstated, the service levels put back to what they were.

You can review the North Coast MLA's full address on the Coastal Ferries Act from the Legislature Archive for Thursday afternoon here starting at just before the 1445 mark.

The afternoon session is also available for viewing through the Legislature video archive page, with Ms. Rice's contribution to the Thursday debate starting again just before 1445.

The video of her contribution to the debate has also been posted to the MLA's Facebook page.

For more items of note related to BC Ferries see our archive page here.

Further background on the work of Ms Rice in the Legislature see our Legislature Archive page here, while a wider overview of the provincial political scene can be found from our political blog D'Arcy McGee.

To return to the most recent blog posting of the day, click here.

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