B.C. Ferry scandal eclipses strike
By Terry Glavin

Everything is all just so cheery now.

Premier Gordon Campbell himself says that the weeklong disruption we all suffered because of the ferry strike is a thing we will never again have to endure. The talk-show hosts are satisfied. CanWest's editorialists have calmed down. David Hahn, the B.C. ferry company's new chief executive officer, is making all sorts of cooing noises. [Spring is coming -- sometime.] All the unpleasantness has been packed off to binding arbitration. Our problems are over.

Like hell.

In March 2003, the Crown-owned B.C. Ferry Corporation, along with $330 million in public assets, was handed over to a private company called British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. Victoria didn't just hire a private management firm. The government gave away the ferry corporation.

If you don't know about this, don't be too hard on yourself. According to public-opinion polling done by the very company that got the fleet, most British Columbians don't realize it's happened. Or maybe they do, now. The polling was done back in October. Maybe most people figured out during the ferry strike that something had gone terribly wrong. Maybe that's why there was such astonishing support for the ferry workers, despite all the mayhem and despite the impression created by so much of the news media.

But even now, how many British Columbians realize that within five years, the "subsidized" ferry routes will be expected to pay their own way? How many people realize that 24 of the ferry system's 26 routes are subsidized?

This isn't just about the Southern Gulf routes, which I rely on to get to and from my home on Mayne Island. It's about Powell River, Comox, Campbell River, Cortes Island, Denman and Hornby, Sointula and Port McNeill. And that's just a small part of the picture, on the south coast.

Will these communities even have ferry service five years from now?

Don't count on B.C. Ferry Services Inc. to level with you about any of this. They can't even tell a straight story about that public-opinion poll last October. When the poll results were released, Hahn-the $300,000-a-year ferry boss, a New Yorker here on a work visa-said they backed his view that "our company and our customers cannot afford the current contract."

In fact, the poll results clearly showed that only 11 per cent of respondents viewed the contract as favouring the union.

Don't count on the politicians in Victoria to level with you about any of this either. In the sleight-of-hand transactions made possible by the new Coastal Ferry Act, we all went from being citizens, passengers on our own ferries, to being "customers" of a private company.

During that strange week of December 8, people's lives were disrupted, true enough. Here's how my life on Mayne Island was disrupted. First, it was not knowing whether the Queen of Cumberland was ever going to show up. Then it was having no ferry at all. Then it was wondering when the ferries would be running again.

But the very worst thing about the whole week was turning on the radio for news only to hear some rich American tell me over and over again how much he cared about me and how he was going to do all he could to protect me and my family against the ferry workers, my own neighbours. My own friends.

Here's a guy whose qualifications for the job of running our ferry fleet appear to consist of the part he played in the dismemberment of a multinational corporation that racked up $3.3 billion in debt before it declared bankruptcy two years ago, leaving investors with $250 million in losses and $45 million in unpaid taxes.

When Hahn was taken on as B.C. Ferries' chief executive officer last May, B.C. Ferries mentioned nothing about this. Nothing was said about Covanta Energy Corp., the company Hahn came from. B.C. Ferries said Hahn had spent the past seven years running the U.S. and international operations of a company called Ogden Aviation, a company with 25,000 employees worldwide. The public was told nothing about the fact that Hahn had spent the last four of those seven years as vice-president of Covanta, Ogden Aviation's parent company, selling it off and winding it down.

The Troubled Company Reporter is an American newsletter that covers the Byzantine world of corporate bankruptcies and company restructuring in the United States. Last June, the newsletter reported that a major part of Hahn's Covanta job-for which he was reportedly paid an annual salary, including bonuses, totalling more than $500,000-was to expedite the disposition of Covanta's aviation assets, its cargo-handling business, its airport fuel-supply services, everything.

In other words, the relevant talents of the guy that Gordon Campbell's appointees have hired to run B.C.'s ferry fleet appear to lie mainly in breaking up and selling off a major transportation company's assets.

The Troubled Company Reporter article disclosed proceedings in a New York courtroom that revealed Hahn's settlement deal with Covanta. The deal allowed Hahn to stay on as a consultant with the company, drawing a consultant's fee of $30,000 a month, starting April 28 (a week before he began collecting his $300,000 annual salary from B.C. Ferries) and continuing until at least October 27 of this year.

Hahn's Covanta settlement also included a $28,486 "vacation pay" package, a lump-sum payment of $50,000, and a bonus of $150,000. This is the same guy who has been busy inciting British Columbians against the ferry workers over the "gravy train" their union contract provides.

During the week of December 8, we saw the worst disruption to B.C.'s ferry system in a quarter of a century. Now the ferries are running again, but arbitration of the union contract is not where the trouble will end. It's just where it starts, and only idiots will blame the ferry workers' union for any of this.

We're in this mess because of a scandal that should make us feel nostalgic for relative misdemeanours like the NDP's fast-ferry fiasco.

Our ferries have been stolen from us. We should take them back.

This article is reprinted from the 18 Dec. 03 issue of the B.C. newspaper, Georgia Strait, with permission. For further reprints, permission should be sought from the source.