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Editorial: End the fake independence of B.C. Ferries

There’s an element here of telling management the beatings will continue until morale improves.
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B.C. Ferries vessel Spirit of Vancouver Island on its run between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen. TIMES COLONIST

In a somewhat puzzling statement, Transportation Minister Rob Fleming has warned B.C. Ferries that the company will be fined in future if it cancels “core service” sailings, as happened frequently this year.

For cancellations that are unavoidable, such as those due to weather or breakdowns, the company will not be penalized. However for cancellations the minister considers preventable, fines will be applied.

And which are these? Fleming has said that cancellations caused by staff shortages belong in this group. And that is no small matter.

So far this year, nearly half of all cancellations were caused by staff shortages, 1,163 in all. That’s more than twice the number last year.

There’s an element here of telling management the beatings will continue until morale improves. For in what possible way is the company responsible for staff shortages, a problem that confronts nearly every sector of the economy?

There is indeed a serious problem here, but it’s one the minister is trying to tip-toe around. The real issue is that B.C. Ferries occupies a form of no man’s land, half way between a genuine arm’s length corporation and a government ministry.

Traces of corporatism can be found in the company’s financial statements. Each year B.C. Ferries reports a “profit,” all the while being kept alive by government subsidies.

Likewise, executive compensation is set up along corporate lines. Hence the CEO is eligible for a compensation package of up to $519,000, while five other managers are eligible for packages in the $460,000 range.

How is this justified? The company says it fixes salaries based on comparable corporations.

Yet among the companies listed as “comparable” are B.C. Hydro, with revenues in 2022 of $7.6 billion, and ICBC, with revenues of $5.4 billion.

By comparison, B.C. Ferries took in just $965 million in 2022. This is delusionary thinking.

In his announcement, Fleming went further, in essence demolishing any semblance of an independent corporate status.

In addition to threatening fines for what he considers non-performance, he also upgraded 13 minor routes from discretionary to core services. That will require the company to add a further 1,400 round-trip sailings to its inventory.

Fleming may say these changes were negotiated, not imposed. But that’s a distinction without a difference, because the minister holds the purse strings.

We all agree that minor routes are vital to local residents, and that the company has an obligation to serve them.

But what remains of the company’s independence if the minister is now so firmly in charge?

Perhaps it might be expected that the board of directors would push back against such clear intrusions on their mandate. Yet silence reigns.

Maybe that’s because long-time NDP power broker Joy MacPhail chairs the board, while a majority of the members are either appointed by the government, or by the union representing staff.

This all but confirms the captive status of the company.

It is understandable that the minister finds comfort in propping up the illusion of independence, while pulling all the strings.

What politician would want to take responsibility for such an under-performing organization?

Yet 22 million passengers use the ferries each year.

Some depend for their livelihood on reliable travel back and forth to their place of work. Others bring business-sustaining tourist dollars to our islands.

It’s long since time that B.C. Ferries was moved back into the provincial transportation ministry. As an essential adjunct to the province’s road system, that’s where it belongs.

Perhaps then, with accountability placed on a minister responsible to the voters, rather than on a pretend board of directors, service would improve.

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