Mr. Speaker, I acknowledge and commend my colleague and friend, the hon. member for St. John's East, who has brought forward this motion to the House of Commons for discussion. I thank him very much for years of great service to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, to the House of Commons and to Canadians.
I think it goes without saying that the hon. member has served the House well but, most important, has served his constituents exceptionally well. I wish him all the very best in having stated that he will not seek re-election. I know he is one of the finest members of Parliament that Newfoundland and Labrador has ever had the benefit of having as a representative in the House of Commons.
Motion No. 242 is a very important one. It is very timely. I also would like to think, and I feel confident in saying, that the MP for St. John's East would have liked to have gone out with a real high note on Marine Atlantic, having championed and spearheaded an initiative to reinforce and reinvigorate that Crown corporation, which serves our needs within the island of Newfoundland so importantly.
The motion was tabled in the House of Commons prior to the announcement of the Government of Canada in terms of its overall Marine Atlantic strategy. That motion having been tabled, called upon the government to adopt a comprehensive strategy for marine services and transportation links to the province.
The member who brought it forward fully intended that it would be a source to spur on the government and to create an incentive to fully fund and revitalize, from a policy point of view, the Marine Atlantic ferry services. Unfortunately, however, it did not achieve that.
The overall result, as a result of the Government of Canada's decision on Marine Atlantic, was to increase fares on an annual basis tied to the consumer price index for the next five years. That is completely unacceptable to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Its second decision was to add an additional fuel surcharge to users who used the Marine Atlantic ferry service.
Its third decision was to look at ways of reducing fuel consumption within the ferry system. I do not know. There could be other ways to do it, maybe using blended fuels and other things which Marine Atlantic is already doing, but the only way to reduce fuel consumption is to reduce the number of crossings of the Marine Atlantic ferry service. That is unacceptable. Our objective here is to increase the level of standards of service, not to decrease them.
The fourth decision established by the Government of Canada, through the Department of Transport, was to increase user fees onboard the vessels and for related services. This is not a strategy to revitalize Marine Atlantic. This is a strategy to gouge Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and others who use the service.
Of all the perishable goods that come into the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, 90% arrive via the Marine Atlantic ferry service. This is our essential service. It is our Trans-Canada Highway. That is why the very excellent member for St. John's East brought it forward for debate in the House of Commons. He, too, understands and realizes the importance of this issue. Together we will continue to work and press the Government of Canada to provide a better, not a lesser, service for Canadians.
Marine Atlantic, the gulf ferry service, is unique in that it is constitutionally bound by the Government of Canada to provide, but it is not necessarily exclusive in that responsibility. There are three constitutionally based ferry services in the country.
In the province of British Columbia, the government bears a responsibility for a fortnightly mail boat service between Victoria and Seattle, Washington. In lieu of actually providing that service, a political arrangement was established between the Government of Canada and the Government of B.C. Instead of providing a fortnightly mail boat service, a financial compensation offer was granted. That compensation was established to increase annually, based on the consumer price index of Vancouver. Today's annual subsidy is roughly $30 million a year.
Looking at it fairly and genuinely, the Government of Canada has two options available to it. It could either provide a fortnightly mail boat service, a mail boat between Victoria and Seattle every four days, establish a Crown corporation to do it, maybe costing $3 million, $4 million or $5 million a year to do so, or it could have a political arrangement between the Government of Canada and the Government of B.C. and establish it based on some merit based principles. It established that service and provided close to $30 million a year, the annual federal subsidy tied to the consumer price index of Vancouver, not reducing the subsidy based on inflation, but increasing it. This is a very important point.
The second constitutionally bound service is between New Brunswick and PEI. PEI forwent its constitutional service for the construction of a fixed link. The Government of Canada paid 100% of all capital costs related to the construction of the Confederation Bridge, the fixed link that now binds the mainland of Canada with the people and the province of PEI It tied the fees or the rates charged to consumers to use the Confederation Bridge at an amount less than the value of inflation. It is well below the actual cost of providing the service. It structured a deal that annual subsidies would go to the private sector operator of the Confederation Bridge and it required the private sector operator not to increase fees to any level, other than below inflation. In other words, the cost of using the Confederation Bridge is lowering each and every year.
Now we get to the Marine Atlantic ferry service, the third and final and most recent constitutional obligation that was brought in to the federation. Marine Atlantic is not lowering the fees and it is not stabilizing fees. What is it doing? It is increasing fees on an annual basis.
The disparity between how the Government of Canada treats other constitutional services versus how it treats the Marine Atlantic, the gulf ferry services, is quite evident. I am sure that is why the member for St. John's East brought this motion forward.
We need a comprehensive strategy that deals with the rising costs of Marine Atlantic, but does not bear those costs out on the consumers, on the users of the ferry service.
Here is one of the problems. When Marine Atlantic was a Crown corporation that encompassed all of Atlantic Canada, it had 17 ferry runs throughout all of Atlantic Canada. It operated ferries between New Brunswick and PEI, Cape Breton and PEI, Digby, Nova Scotia and Saint John, New Brunswick, between Nova Scotia and the state of Main, throughout the coast of Labrador and throughout the south coast of Newfoundland and the northeast coast of Newfoundland. It had 17 ferry operations plus the Saint John dockyards.
In 1995 the decision was taken to dramatically reduce the actual size of the Crown corporation. Today, Marine Atlantic is no longer a Crown corporation that offers 17 different ferry runs. It now operates one full time service between North Sydney and Port aux Basques and a seasonal service between Argentia and North Sydney.
The problem, and this is a very evident problem, the entire pension costs of all the former workers at Marine Atlantic from all 17 runs are still borne as the responsibility of the current Marine Atlantic Crown corporation. In other words, all pension costs, which now inflate to $25 million a year, are incurred by the users of one ferry services, the crossing between North Sydney and Port aux Basques.
The government opposite has decreed a policy of reducing net federal debt. I could not think of a better opportunity to apply some of that $10 billion in surplus that went to debt this past year and the $13 billion last year. Why does the Government of Canada not pay down that pension liability, that pension debt, and allow $25 million more to Marine Atlantic for use by consumers and the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.