Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to say a few words on Bill C-253, an act to amend the Canada Marine Act.
The summary at the beginning of the private member's bill indicates that the bill would create a new class of port under the name “local port council”. The summary goes on to say:
Regional and local ports that become local port councils are not required to be financially self-sustaining when they are incorporated and may receive financial assistance from the federal government.
It goes on to say:
When a local court council becomes financially self-sustaining, some aspects of a local port council may be transferred to the government of the province where the port operated as a local port council is located.
As this is a private member's bill I assume the hon. member proposing the bill must have a port or ports in his region or constituency that fits the thrust of the bill. In the ordinary course of events many ports that were operated directly by the federal government over the years have been placed under local port authorities.
It is interesting to see what has happened in some of the eastern Canadian provinces and, in particular, in my own province of Newfoundland. The federal government has been delinquent in how it has been treating small communities that have these wharves. These little wharves and local ports were built under Canada works projects or LIP grants. Since the current administration came to power about 10 years ago it has completely abandoned those small communities and has sent them adrift.
When communities look for money to do repairs on these small local wharves they are given the old song and dance routine that it is no longer viable to keep these wharves and ports operating. As a result they have become dilapidated. The federal government waves its hand and says that they are not getting any money because they have become dangerous and a hazard to navigation.
Therefore it is okay for ports that have sufficient traffic and an appropriate infrastructure already in place. They are able to get along quite well. They have financial viability combined with the flexibility and sensitivity that can only come from independent local management. However, in the case of small communities, the viability of these small ports and wharves cannot be maintained without the involvement of the federal government.
The problem arises when the local port has dedicated local users or it is vital to the local economy but it is not viable in the financial sense. The government appears to be getting out of the business of running such facilities as a service to the public.
For example, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is currently divesting itself of 325 harbours nationwide. That is a blow to the communities. A full 42% of these ports are located in the province of Newfoundland. I would say to my colleague that there is quite a number of them located in Nova Scotia, in Guysborough county, and in New Brunswick. However 42% of them are in Newfoundland.
Given the state of the province's rural economy, many harbours will have nobody coming forward to set up a local port authority. Perhaps many of the harbours in other provinces on the list are also non-viable in a financial sense. What will become of them?
In the past, many of the wharves, sheds and breakwaters were put out to tender for dismantling or demolition, but the watchword of the federal government these days is viability or debt. If it is not viable it goes. The parliamentary secretary gets up and gives such glowing reports on the federal government and how it is looking after all these things when that is simply not true.
I invite him to come to Atlantic Canada. He should get out of central Canada for a change and get out in the boondocks. He should come to Atlantic Canada and see what is going on in the small communities. I am sure the parliamentary secretary and the Minister of Transport would have a much different outlook on what they are doing to these small communities. The watchword of the federal government is viability or debt as far as ports and harbours are concerned.
Incidentally the same applies to airports. We have many airports in rural Canada that are being forced under local airport authorities and are now facing a struggle for their very existence. Such airports might be invaluable to the local people and economy, but the traffic volumes are not there to sustain an economically viable operation. The end result for many of these ports and airports would be closure unless the government is willing to subsidize the operations.
Bill C-253 does not directly address the policy question about whether or not the federal government should directly maintain financially non-viable ports as a public service. However the member proposing the bill is offering the federal government an indirect route to maintain non-viable ports by setting up a new entity called local port councils.
In the bill the government is being offered a vehicle through which it can subsidize the continued existence of financially non-viable ports. The parliamentary secretary and the Minister of Transport would do well to listen to the member who is proposing the bill.
I note that the wording in the bill reads that the minister may approve the setting up of a local port council. The Minister may make financial assistance available to such a port council. The Minister may transfer all or part of such a facility to the provincial government if the port becomes financially viable.
The local people in an area might be all for setting up a local port council to save a financially non-viable port, but they would be dependent on the goodwill of the minister to turn any of that into a reality.
To give it more teeth, a bill such as this one should try to establish certain objective criteria for port viability. Once the port meets those criteria, it is appropriate for there to be wording in the bill to say that the minister shall provide funding until such time as it becomes viable. The problem is that I am not sure the minister would want to be bound by the word shall.
The government appears to be getting out of running all kinds of services that are not financially viable. If local entities cannot run services on a self-sustaining basis, we can expect their closure or elimination. As I said a moment ago, with the current government the watchword has been viability or death over the last seven or eight years.
If nothing else, the member's bill points out a growing reality of the total elimination of federal services in institutions in rural Canada. The post office is now in the local drug store. The rail spurs are gone. The local airport is closing. Ports and harbours are being abandoned or dismantled.
The member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough said that the federal government was hot to trot on trying to get out of a whole range of services. It is looking at banks. It is looking at an awful lot of things. As I said, viability or death is the watchword of the government.
If the bill helps the member draw attention to a potentially viable port in his area, and if it sheds light on the problems we are having in rural Atlantic Canada, it is worthy of the effort. I congratulate the member on presenting the bill. We certainly support it.