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The big fix for Gulf ferry service

Marine Atlantic’s fuel surcharge increase delay welcomed, but calls for affordability and fair treatment for NL residents continue

MV Highlanders dockside in Port aux Basques in 2022. – © René J. Roy / Wreckhouse Press

By Jaymie L. White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

PORT AUX BASQUES — On Thursday, Apr. 27, Marine Atlantic announced a new fuel surcharge, scheduled to come into effect on Jun. 1. This surcharge would see an increase from the current rate of 13 per cent to 17 per cent, would be applied at the time of booking instead of at the time of travel, and the formula for the fuel surcharge program would be tied to the average fuel price paid by Marine Atlantic. A little over a month later, on Wednesday, May 31, Marine Atlantic amended its original decision and stated there would be a delay in the implementation of an increased fuel surcharge. “As Marine Atlantic evaluates ongoing fuel pricing measures, including the implementation of the federal carbon tax this summer, the Corporation has opted to delay the implementation of the updated fuel surcharge until at least December 1, 2023. The current 13 per cent fuel surcharge will remain in place until that time.” MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – LaPoile) and Minister of Industry, Energy and Technology, was aware of the pending surcharge increase. “I said ages ago this was going to happen. I asked the Federal minister to prevent this from happening, and then it still happened, and then we went out as a province and advocated for this to be taken back and that it was a wrong headed move on so many levels,” said Parsons. “The long and short is that then it was done. So obviously I’m happy to see this done. It never needed to get to this juncture.” Although this increase has been delayed, there are still other issues surrounding the ferry service that are being discussed. Parsons is among those lobbying against the Crown corporation’s cost recovery policy, which is set at 65 per cent. “We’re not stopping here,” promised Parsons. “This doesn’t change the fact that we’re still dealing with what I think to be a constitutionally intrusive cost recovery policy that is negatively affecting our province and the Atlantic region, and we had already said before when we held the press conference on this that we will be considering legal action, and that position has not changed.” As welcome as that delay might be for passengers, MHA Tony Wakeham (Stephenville – Port au Port) believes that it isn’t enough. “I think that the public outcry, as much as anything, has led to Marine Atlantic re-evaluating or postponing this until December, but the real issue for me is that this should never have been implemented. The Federal government should order Marine Atlantic not just to delay the increase, but to cancel the rate increases outright. We’re already paying too much in my opinion for this service. And the approach taken by Ottawa, this cost recovery approach to the service, needs to be abandoned in recognition of its crucial importance to our province and keep the rates that we’re paying from rising,” said Wakeham. “We all know that Gulf ferry is our Trans Canada Highway link to the rest of the country, and the rates not only affect personal travel, but affect the cost of goods that are trucked in by the ferry. It impacts the competitiveness of our local businesses that truck goods out, and our tourism industry, of course, on which thousands of people rely to have people come and visit our province. I don’t believe that we’re getting a fair deal in this particular case.” Port aux Basques Mayor Brian Button also stated that the delay was the right move, but that still more needs to be done. “I think it’s the right decision. I mean, I didn’t agree with it in the beginning, I don’t agree with it now, and to see that it’s delayed, I think it shouldn’t just be delayed, I think it should be abolished,” said Button. The Town still has on file a letter received in 2015 by then-opposition leader and current PM Justin Trudeau, promising to deal with cost recovery. “We pay quite a bit to go across. It’s our constitutional right to travel back and forth. That’s our Trans Canada Highway. Everybody else can get in their car and go where they want and it won’t cost them nearly what it would cost us to start to do the same trip that they do. But when we go across that ferry, not only for what it costs for us to go and what it costs for people to come and visit our province, it’s the goods and services that we bring in. When you’re putting surcharges and fuel charges and so many other charges, plus the rate charges, I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand why our federal government, our Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau himself, why he sat in opposition that said, ‘You’re going to make these changes.’ He’s been in power now for forever and they still haven’t made the changes. We have our MP (Gudie Hutchings, Long Range Mountains) that sits in the same rooms when we have a bunch of Newfoundland and Labrador MPs there that need to say, enough is enough.” Wakeham drew a similar comparison about ease of travel. “I think that other Canadians do not face obstacles to travel, including those who rely, for example, on the Confederation Bridge out of PEI. They pay one way. There is a bridge in Quebec called the Champlain Bridge, which the federal government subsidizes millions of dollars to, and Quebec does not pay to cross that bridge. So it seems that because we’re an island and because we’re in the North Atlantic and maybe because we’re far away from the seat of government in Ottawa, that we don’t get treated in the same manner,” said Wakeham. “As part of Confederation, it’s about equality and equitable treatment, and I think when you have significant barriers to that, like continued increases in ferry rates, it impacts people’s livelihood. It impacts the prices we pay for basic services like food, and so those are the things I think that a government has to look at, especially in times of high inflation, that are having a significant impact on many, many people in this province. As I said, it’s not just about leisure travel. It’s about the impact on all of the goods and services that are delivered.” Wakeham noted the negative financial impact on NL residents, who shoulder the brunt of the cost. “It’s extremely expensive, and again, you have to question why we recognize that it is a cost. But should the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have to pay such a significant portion of that cost? Should it not be considered part of the Trans Canada Highway? Maybe there’s a different way of looking at it, and as I said, this cost recovery method that the government has put in place needs to be reviewed and then we need to come up with a different formula and we need people in Ottawa, and we need our provincial government to be making a real argument for this,” said Wakeham. “It appears that once we turn around and Marine Atlantic postpones their decision, it all goes quiet, and we don’t continue to push the issue. The real issue is the way we are being treated and the way that system is set up on this cost recovery basis. A simple postponement of an increase that was poorly timed, ill-advised and not necessary certainly has silenced the critics for the time being, I guess, or silenced government members, silenced the Liberal MPs. But I don’t think the people of the province are going to be silenced. I think they realize that it’s time that we took another look at how this service is run and how this formula is calculated.” Button also wants to see the financial impact on NL residents taken into greater consideration by the Federal government. “This service should be provided and should be provided at a cost where it can be affordable for people. It can also be that when we go to buy something, goods and services off the shelf, we shouldn’t have to pay that much more than everybody else,” said Button. To visit the province this summer, a family of four sailing round trip with a vehicle, but without a cabin, will have to pay over $480. “There’s going to be an argument that tourists are coming, and the numbers and statistics show that tourism is up and I don’t doubt that, but it’s like anything. If I’m planning a one-time trip to go somewhere, wherever I’m going, if I get ready today and I decide to go to Cuba and I’m planning a trip, and it’s going to cost me three, four, $5,000 or whatever it may be, I’m planning that trip, someone else is coming over here is planning that trip,” said Button. “It’s the one offs that people, when they come down and they’re deciding, should we go over to Newfoundland and Labrador? We’re down as far as Nova Scotia. Should we take the jaunt over? Once they check out the prices to come over, it discourages them not going over there for what it’s going to cost. So tourism is going to be up when people want to come to Newfoundland and Labrador, and we do a great job in this province of the ads that we put out for encouraging people to come, and people will plan that trip. But for the everyday Joe that wants to go and come into this province, and for everybody here? I don’t know the last time I was on the ferry myself.” Wakeham said an better, alternative solution needs to be found. “We need to have a strategy here,” said Wakeham. “I think that’s the key, is to look at the cost recovery model and to change that, because maybe it’s got to change from being a cost recovery model to some kind of a model that’s based on equality. Should we pay more for goods and services or significantly more for goods and services because of a transportation cost across the Gulf? Those are questions that need to be asked. The detailed analysis needs to be done.” Button believes the best idea is to simply make it more affordable, especially for tourists who would like to hop across the Gulf for a short trip, such as a weekend excursion. “It’s the federal government’s obligation to change the formula on how it works. When they do that, they may make it affordable for you, me and everybody else. Because we’re the one offs, we’re not the person who’s making a planned, budgeted trip to go to Newfoundland this summer. They know what it’s costing. They’re going to go. It’s part of what they’re going to do,” said Button. “But for me and you that want to get ready to go, and the goods that continue to flow across the water to come over to us, we continue to pay more. And if anything, I’ve always said, I think if nothing else, the people within this province should get something of a rebate or something to be able to use the system to be able to go and come. That’s how we connect to Canada.” Food, goods and tourism aside, and like MHA Parsons, Wakeham also cited the terms of union in his argument against the policy. “I don’t believe for a second that if the recovery process on this is somewhere around 65 per cent now, that it’s not over and above what I would argue would have been the original terms of union and how we were to be treated. And as I said, it’s something that the Federal government can control. It’s something that can be done. It’s just a question of whether or not there’s a political will to do it,” said Wakeham. “We are hindered in so many ways for people who perhaps would like to visit. Instead of being a positive, it’s become a negative. But again, I go back to the basics of food and goods and services that have come across on that theory. We need that to be competitive, and of any increase in price, and this cost recovery model certainly has an impact on that.” Past and current councils of the Town of Channel-Port aux Basques have held numerous meetings with politicians and other municipalities to discuss the financial impact of cost recovery. After years with seemingly little progress, they remain committed to continuing to advocate against the policy. Mayor Button stated that prospect of a fixed link between Quebec and Labrador is not a viable solution or alternative to the ferry service, largely due to existing infrastructure. “Every time that we get together with our MP, we talk about Marine Atlantic and it’s a top priority for us. I’m a believer we spend too much time talking about a fixed link for Newfoundland and Labrador. I believe that you already have a channel which people use. The channel has become unaffordable for some people and you have to fix the issues that you have currently,” said Button. “We’re talking about a fixed link. We’re going to come into this province in a way that we’re still on shore. How many people would ever use it this way? We’re going to come into a highway that’s not even developed and coming down through the Northern Peninsula, and we’re only here today in 2023 talking about whether we need to twin the highways coming out of Port aux Basques and things. So we’re in 2023, but yet we’re talking about putting a fixed link in and coming down in a place where the highways aren’t at a standard that we’re still trying to improve to this day. So it makes no sense to me, the fixed link and stuff. We’ve spun our wheels on that. They need to fix the issues which we already have with the services that are provided, and the big fix is making it affordable.” Marine Atlantic declined to comment for this story. MP Gudie Hutchings was unavailable to comment as of press deadline.

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