Conservative minister says MP playing politics
The Liberal MP for Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte says the Harper Conservatives scrapped a Marine Atlantic vessel renewal plan which recommended four Canadian-built ferries be made especially for the run between this province and Nova Scotia.
Gerry Byrne told The Telegram this week the government has refused to release two independent reports on vessel replacement, which were done around 2005-06.
Byrne also fears the three recently leased vessels may be too long, and therefore not as safe as they should be.
The federal government’s transportation committee met this week in Ottawa. At that meeting, Byrne asked Minister of State for Transportation Rob Merrifield about the previous plan, and for the reports.
From minutes of Marine Atlantic board meetings, Byrne said he was able to determine that the plan under the previous Liberal government was “well-advanced, well-described and an approved plan for a complete vessel replacement strategy that was based on Canadian-made vessels.”
“The plan was not only approved by the board of Marine Atlantic, but was also sanctioned by Transport Canada and Public Works Canada,” he said.
The studies were being done by Fleetway Inc and Oceanic Consulting Corporation.
Fleetway was to do a logistical analysis of Marine Atlantic’s fleet and operations and Oceanic was to do a technical study which looked at the naval architecture and engineering of new vessels.
The process was so advanced, according to Byrne, that a bidders’ conference was held in North Sydney, N.S. in March 2006, less than two months after the Conservatives came to power.
But then, Byrne said, the plan “evaporated.”
Considering the state of the fleet at the time the studies were done, it was determined that the replacement plan had to begin by 2007.
“Their inaction forced (the government) to aquire European-owned vessels, European-built, second-hand vessels to be able to meet the basic requirements of the service,” said Byrne.
He said not sticking to the plan to build new vessels in Canada cost jobs at Canadian shipyards, even though it would have cost Ottawa more money than going overseas.
But Byrne said he has another reason for bringing this up.
He said the Caribou and Smallwood ferries were 185 metres long, and the Marine Atlantic board minutes show that recommendations were for new vessels to be slightly smaller, at 175 metres.
But the three leased vessels are 200 metres long, according to Byrne.
“I think (the) Oceanic (report) suggested they are too big,” said Byrne, who added that means safety may be compromised.
He said when the Blue Puttees sailed into St. John’s harbour on Feb. 9, there was a near roll-over incident, which Marine Atlantic downplayed.
“The fleet we now have is not what was recommended. We need to know why, and we need to know what the potential consequence for the safety of that decision is,” said Byrne.
“If there’s no concern, put out the study. If there is a concern, it’s a coverup.”
But Merrifield blamed the previous Liberal government for leaving Marine Atlantic in a state.
“It was in desperate sorts,” he told The Telegram.
“You have to be believe that maybe there’s a (federal) election brewing. He’s playing politics with this silly thing,” Merrifield said.
He said there was no decision to more forward with a plan when the Conservatives came to power, as there were still feasibility studies to do.
And Merrifield said the plan that Byrne is suggesting would have meant waiting at least 10 years for new vessels.
When it comes to Byrne’s concern about vessel length and safety, Merrifield said there hasn’t been a hitch so far.
“I don’t know ... what makes Gerry Byrne an expert in this. He’s a politician not an engineer,” said Merrifield, adding he’s no expert either.
“Marine Atlantic has done their work on this. The new vessels, I’m told by Marine Atlantic ... once the crew gets up to speed and comfortable with the vessel, they’ll move in and out of (port) the same as the Smallwood and the Caribou.”
When quizzed about potential safety risks, Merrifield said the near roll-over Byrne spoke of was a minor list of 15 degrees, not the 41-degrees that some have suggested.
“At no time was there any risk whatsoever,” he said.
Merrifield acknowledged that Byrne has made a motion to the transportation committee for the documents he’s talking about, but that motion has yet come up for discussion.
“There’s no problem, We’ll give whatever is legally possible to give him,” said Merrifield.
The minister said he’s frustrated by Byrne’s comments because his concern is to make sure the service is there for Atlantic Canadians.
“There’s nothing to say that after a five-year charter that we won’t go to shipbuilding. But let’s see if these will do the job,” he said.