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JIM VIBERT: Talk about Maine ferry deal criticized

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

Loose lips sink ships.

To elaborate, all this talk about the cost of the Yarmouth-to-Maine ferry, the hidden details of the deal, and questions about whether the ferry offers the best value to Nova Scotian taxpayers, is making folks nervous on either side of the Gulf of Maine.

Such talk, according to the ferry operator and the provincial government, hangs like a dark cloud of uncertainty over the economy of Yarmouth, the Acadian Shore and well beyond.

The people in the region remember the bad times after the former NDP government pulled the plug on the Maine ferry in 2009 and the tourism economy at the southern end of Nova Scotia withered and all but died.

But since the return of The Cat in 2016, there’s been a dramatic turnaround. Tourism businesses are expanding, new businesses are opening, investment and jobs are flowing again. And yet, if you believe Liberal MLAs from the area, all of that is jeopardized by the opposition Tories raising questions about the deal between the province and Bay Ferries, which operates the service.

The issue ignites passions not often seen at the legislature. This week a verbal altercation about the ferry involving Conservative leader Tim Houston and Education Minister Zack Churchill, who represents Yarmouth, came dangerously close to getting physical.

Disparaging words about any aspect of the ferry deal apparently carry sufficient menace to send skittish investors in search of more certain ground, and spook tour bus operators and like partners in the northeast United States. Words may not sink the boat, but uncertainty about the ship’s future, we are assured, is decidedly bad for business.

At the legislature’s economic development committee Wednesday, Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald, flanked by civil servants from tourism and transportation, spent much of his time bemoaning what he sees as the negative publicity about the ferry generated by Tories past and present.

“Our company and most people who work for our company learned long ago to ignore politicians and get on with the job,” MacDonald told the committee. However, he added that potential passengers and partners on the American side haven’t been similarly inoculated against political hyperbole. Really? Have they heard their president?

To emphasize his point, MacDonald produced a two-year-old clipping from the business section of the Portland Press Herald proclaiming that then-Tory leader Jamie Baillie was threatening to kill the ferry service. This was presented as an example of how negativity knows no borders.

The importance of the sea link to Maine to tourism operators across South West Nova Scotia was left largely to the Liberal MLAs on the committee — Churchill and Gordon Wilson (L-Digby) — to establish.

Visitors who arrive in Nova Scotia via the ferry are said to stay longer in the province, travel and spend more than most other visitors. Tourism Nova Scotia says the impact is felt throughout the province, with up to 30 per cent of the ferry arrivals making their way to Cape Breton and 60 per cent to Halifax.

Cast as the villain in this piece is Houston, who not only has the temerity to question the deal, he’s taking the province to court — as prescribed by the Freedom of Information Act — to try to pry loose its details, specifically the management fee the province pays Bay Ferries to operate the service.

At the committee, Houston tried to get someone to explain how a ferry service that will cost provincial taxpayers north of $20 million this year, provides value equal to Tourism Nova Scotia, which has an annual budget of about the same amount but has a mandate to attract tourists to the entire province.

At the risk of banishment from South Western Nova Scotia, or fisticuffs with a younger, significantly fitter education minister, that sounds for all the world like a question deserving of an answer.

Parts of this game are as old as politics itself. Any comment or question about the ferry service is immediately repurposed by the government as an attack on the economic fabric of an entire region of the province. It’s the kind of politics that kept Nova Scotia anchored to a failed steel mill in Sydney for about two decades longer than made any kind of economic sense.

That’s where the similarities between the Yarmouth ferry and Sydney Steel begin and end. But rather than demonize the critics, the provincial government could do South West Nova Scotia and the tourism sector a favour by bringing on the economic analysis that proves this ferry is a good deal for Nova Scotian taxpayers. Surely, it is close at hand.


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