Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Marine Act, the Canada Transportation Act, the Pilotage Act and other Acts in consequence, because I have the privilege of representing the federal riding of Halifax.
While I do not want to lay claim, in any way, shape or form, to the port of Halifax being the exclusive concern of the federal riding of Halifax because three additional federal ridings abut one way or another on some part of the Halifax Harbour, I think it is fair to say that the riding of Halifax is the most historic riding to make up part of the port of Halifax.
The Halifax port is an incredibly important part of the economic development infrastructure and, to state the obvious, the transportation infrastructure of the Halifax metropolitan region and, indeed, the province of Nova Scotia and the whole of Atlantic Canada.
Before I begin speaking to the amendments to the four bills that are affected by Bill C-23, I want to take the opportunity to talk about the vision, the creativity and the innovation of the former mayor of Halifax, Allan O'Brien, who, in the late 1960s, had the vision to see that we needed to do a great deal to enhance our port capacity. He knew that container shipping would become a huge factor in the shipment of goods in the modern era. Container capacity in the city of Halifax was an important innovation undertaken at that time and it remains an extremely important part of the economic capacity of the port of Halifax, which continues to play a major part in the economy of the region and of our country.
People talk about the concept of the Atlantic Gateway. I hope it does not seem presumptuous to say this, but I think it is fair to say that Halifax has been one of the major economic gateways to Canada and to all of North America for over 400 years. In a sense, it does not need to compete for the notion of being the major Atlantic Gateway but, at the same time, a major collaborative effort is under way to strengthen the port of Halifax so it can be an even more effective economic driver for goods coming to the North American continent.
When I had the opportunity to talk with my provincial New Democrat candidates in Nova Scotia recently, the official opposition in the province of Nova Scotia, it was pointed out to me that it was not well-known that the port of Halifax, in many instances, offers the fastest and the most effective route into North America.
The bill that is now before us addresses a number of valid concerns that have been brought forward over a period of several years. However, I hope we can further enhance the capability of the port of Halifax and other Canadian ports as well to play an even bigger role as a gateway into North America.
I think members of the House are aware of the history of the bill that is now before us. It resulted from a consultative process across the country in 2003, when a legislative review of the Canada Marine Act was conducted, and in a 1995 policy review for federal ports on the elimination of overcapacity and the new governance structures needed to support more successful commercial operations and a more comprehensive system of transportation, of which the Halifax port is only one component.
There was a great deal of interest in that review process at the time. I think some 75 hearings were held with 140 submissions by a variety of stakeholders from across the country. Therefore, in part, the changes contained in Bill C-23 came out of that review process.
It is my view and the view of my colleagues, several of whom have already very ably spoken to the bill, that the bill should be supported at this stage of second reading to go to committee. It is also our view that some amendments are needed to some areas of the bill. It would be our contention that at committee these amendments ought to be fully considered and, hopefully, supported, adopted and brought back to the House. If the necessary amendments are made, I and my colleagues would see this as an important step forward in strengthening our capacity to play an even greater role in this country of effective ports into the North American continent.
A number of positive things can be said about the bill. A number of provisions in the bill would improve access to funding by port authorities for infrastructure improvements. There are some areas in which there are infrastructure improvements needed to the port of Halifax and other ports. The original marine act did not actually allow for port authorities to get access to federal funding. This is being addressed in the bill and it is long overdue.
The bill also would provide the port authorities with the ability to borrow money for port purposes on the port authorities' credit. This is an important provision that needs to be supported. It is an important start but it is our view that the borrowing power that would be made available to port authorities needs to be increased beyond where this present bill establishes that limit.
Another important amendment, which, I guess, would be mostly true of the port of Halifax, explicitly states the historical importance of our ports to the Canadian economy and to the North American economy. This positive statement is particularly timely at this juncture. We know how important our ports are but we also know there are particular challenges that need to be met in the context of the current events happening and the current security threats that need to be taken seriously.
One of the areas in which we are very adamant that there needs to be improvements in Bill C-23 relates to the security challenges that our ports are facing. I think it is fair to say that a missed opportunity in the current drafting of the bill is to tackle the importance of streamlining, standardizing and strengthening both the funding for national security measures in our ports and also for the way in which the security provisions are actually handled.
The disbandment of the port police was very controversial when it took place a number of years ago. I know the New Democratic Party expressed some major concerns about it at the time. At the very least, I think one has to say that the disbandment was done in a very ad hoc way and was premature.
What Bill C-23 would enable us to do with some appropriate amendments is to actually recognize that there needs to be a more coherent, comprehensive, streamlined process dealing with security.
This is almost unbelievable but at the moment the 19 different major port authorities literally have 19 different systems addressing their security needs. Some ports have a combination of federal, municipal and provincial police. Some have various partnerships and relationships with private security firms. In Halifax, for example, we have a contract with the municipal police augmented by private security firms for commercial port users.
I had a professor who would talk about the lack of a really thorough, systematic approach of whatever regulatory nature that looked like a dog's breakfast. In this day and age, in particular, we need to be concerned about a more comprehensive and coherent approach to port security.
It pains me to say this but we in the city of Halifax have a very real concern these days about the increase in violence in some pockets of our communities. This is not unusual nor is it exceptional to Halifax. I am pleased to take the opportunity to say that we in the city of Halifax are blessed with one of the finest police forces in our country. We have an outstanding chief of police and deputy chief of police who absolutely understand what it means to say that we need to take this challenge seriously and that what it requires is being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. They do not only express that as some kind of a convenient slogan. They act on it and they engage the whole community in the process of identifying where the kind of preventive and rehabilitative measures are needed that would actually get that job done, while, at the same time, recognizing that there are instances in which the public is not being adequately protected from some of the offenders who threaten their very security and in fact their lives in many cases.
It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that at committee there are some amendments brought in to take a more coherent or comprehensive approach to the security challenges we face.
It may not be so obvious to people who live in landlocked places but ports are a wonderful asset and a wonderful resource. However, particularly with the increase in commercial activity and the potential for massive containers to be brought in on container ships, there can be real challenges to identifying illicit drugs or illegal arms that are stowed in those containers by hostile individuals who have anything but our best interests at heart when they do that.
I am not saying that it is frequent, but, and I believe this figure would apply today or recently, the figures would indicate that only 3% of the containers coming into our ports now are actually inspected. I am not an authority but I do know there are some challenges. I do not know what percentage it should be but it seems that 3% is a very low percentage of container inspection to determine whether there are threats to our security.
I do not want in any way to create the impression, because I do not believe it is true, that the port of Halifax has bigger challenges in that regard than other ports, but I think what it does underscore is that we need to have a more streamlined, comprehensive approach to security, and this is the time to do it.
I recall in part with amusement, but I also remember how furious I was at the time, that on the eve of the 2004 election there was virtually a Liberal rally conducted in Halifax where there was a great deal of fanfare about funding coming into the port of Halifax to improve our security protection in the aftermath of 9/11.
Honestly, we could not tell that it was not a Liberal rally. There were three cabinet ministers that flew in at, of course, public expense to make this big announcement with great fanfare, but actually it was totally lacking in specifics. A whole two years later, when I was making inquiries to find out about the delivery of those promises, not a single penny had flown at the time to fulfill those promises.
If the new provisions of Bill C-23 are appropriately adopted, we will be supporting it if the necessary amendments can hang within it. Let us not turn it into a kind of pre-election fanfare thing, which I think would do a disservice to the fact that the consultation process that has taken place has involved all of the stakeholders, all of the levels of government, and recognized that this is something of interest to the security and well-being of our individual citizens, and obviously to the well-being and success of our local, regional and national economies.
Mr. Speaker, with those words, I am pleased to indicate my support for the legislation to be passed at second reading. I look forward to a lively committee process where other concerns will be addressed, including some real problems about shrinking down the numbers of members on the port authorities. This does not allow for a diverse representation as is really needed to ensure that all interests are fully considered at the decision-making level of our port authorities.