Ferries are a constant thorn in the government’s side. They are essential transportation services, but unfailingly expensive ones — a sort of necessary evil for the provincial government.
The never-ending headache of ferry services in Newfoundland is understood easily enough. Between all the competing interests at play, managing the provincial ferry fleet already constitutes a veritable juggling act. More often than not, the ball gets dropped somewhere along the way.
You can't please everybody, so the saying goes. But when it comes to ferry service in Newfoundland, making everyone happy would be the miracle of miracles. Controversy is the name of the game.
Consider the divergence in public opinion on the province’s ferries. Newfoundlanders relying on the ferry service have never been satisfied by the system. Infrastructure is perennially lacking, vessels are never big enough and constant ship repairs routinely reduce crossing schedules. For these people, less will never be more. In fact, more probably wouldn’t be enough.
For many other Newfoundlanders, spending millions of dollars a year on purchasing, operating and refitting vessels seems like something of a bottomless cash pit.
True, it’s hard not to sympathize with the ferry-associated woes of towns like Ramea and Bell Island. But the high costs associated with keeping these steadily waning island populations afloat give the residents of mainland Newfoundland communities their own reasons for dissatisfaction with provincial ferry services.
Admittedly, both groups — each with its own concerns — already turn any announcement on ferry funding into a decision that rocks the boat in provincial politics. In such an environment, the government can generally be pardoned for any controversy caused by the ferries. They just can’t win.
But when the government brings the controversy on itself, it’s a different story.
There is a third element at play in any discussion of ferry services — the emphasis on building vessels locally.
Spinoffs from shipbuilding in Newfoundland and Labrador provide substantial returns for the province, so making an announcement that a foreign company has received a substantial ferry-building contract from the province, as the government did recently, will inevitably provoke reaction.
When the government held a news conference two weeks ago to announce that a new $51-million ferry contract had been awarded to Damen Shipyards, a Dutch company, it was inviting criticism. Right on cue, the Opposition benches sprang to life.
Liberal MHA Tom Osborne voiced “disappointment (that) none of the components are being built in the province.” NDP MHA George Murphy, in a typically more dramatic form, called the announcement the “death knell of the Newfoundland and Labrador shipbuilding industry.”
While Murphy may have been a touch severe in his appraisal of the situation, the government’s actions fully warrant his harsh criticism.
Provincial government contracts should reflect the province’s interests in ways that go beyond the finished product. If it is within the government’s power, the benefits of tenders should be felt within the province, well before new vessels start their crossings for the first time.
Yet, when given the opportunity to provide capable local companies with the chance to contribute to provincial infrastructure, the government awarded a new ferry-building contract, its first in years, to a foreign firm. And when it came time to decide on who would receive the multi-million dollar contract, local companies were not given any advantage in the government’s selection process.
While the federal government is taking the initiative with its National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy to ensure “dollar for dollar investment in the Canadian economy,” according to Industry Canada’s website, the Newfoundland and Labrador government simply outsources its shipbuilding to Europe.
The government may have had my sympathies before, but not on this one.
Through its actions, it shows no consideration for local investment, and little ethical concern for Newfoundland and Labrador interests.
Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception
Bay South, is enrolled in the journalism program at Carleton University.
He can be reached by email at