The mix of port authorities and politics is a regular source of headaches for the Harper government.
Now questions are being raised about Canada’s latest federal port, just hours after it was announced Friday in Oshawa by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
The man in charge of setting up the new body is Gary Valcour, the chairman of the Oshawa Harbour Commission, which the port authority replaces. He is also president of the Conservative riding association in Mr. Flaherty’s riding of Oshawa-Whitby.
When asked about the apparent conflict of interest, the Minister said Mr. Valcour will step down as president of the riding association. He also said the port’s new board will ultimately choose the permanent head.
But the questions didn’t stop there. Plans by an ethanol company to build an industrial plant on the port lands are at the heart of a heated local battle over the future of Oshawa’s harbour.
Oshawa City Council and environmentalists want the existing waterfront to include options for public use and strongly oppose the proposed plant. The creation of a federal port authority is raising concern that the needs of industry will win out.
Oshawa councillor Nester Pidwerbecki said he fears the seven-member board of the port authority – filled mainly by the federal government – will approve the construction of the plant, despite the unanimous opposition of city council.
“Obviously it will be top heavy with people who may have already committed themselves to an ethanol plant, and that’s a problem that I don’t know how we’ll be able to deal with,” he said.
Mr. Pidwerbecki was concerned that Oshawa Mayor John Henry was not allowed to speak at Friday’s event.
Mr. Henry said Friday afternoon that he welcomes plans to boost traffic at the port but has many unanswered questions about how the change will affect the city’s opposition to the plant.
“I’m concerned about the lack of information,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been left out of the loop.”
Mr. Flaherty’s riding association also includes Tim O’Connor – a director of FarmTech Energy Corporation, the ethanol company looking to build a plant at the port to export corn and ethanol. The company’s president, Dan O’Connor, Tim’s brother, told The Globe he fails to see how politics or the new port authority will have any impact on his company’s plans.
He said the authority will mostly benefit the existing users of the port. “It brings stability and stability brings investment,” he said.
Ottawa has gradually shut down federal harbour authorities across the country by either transferring them to local governments or transforming them into more powerful port authorities. Oshawa’s was the last federal harbour authority in the country.
The Conservative government has been hit by a series of controversies involving other port authorities.
In 2007, the Prime Minister’s Office was supportive of a controversial lobbying campaign in favour of a specific candidate as the head of the Montreal Port Authority. Conservative officials promoted a former Montreal municipal bureaucrat for the position, along with the city and senior members of the Quebec construction industry.
In the House, the opposition has said the Montreal matter was a clear example of an “infiltration” of the government by private interests, and the matter is now under RCMP investigation.
In 2009, the Toronto Port Authority announced “clarifications” to its policy on hospitality expenses after some board members questioned spending by previous managers, including former CEO Lisa Raitt who had become minister of natural resources.
Around the same time, Ms. Raitt got in hot water after a staff member of the Toronto Port Authority used a work e-mail account to send out invitations to a political fundraiser for her. Ms. Raitt is currently Minister of Labour.
NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice said the Conservatives are using port authorities to find positions for their supporters. He pointed out that a former Conservative MP from eastern Quebec, Bernard Généreux, was appointed to the board of the Quebec Port Authority just before Christmas.
Mr. Boulerice said the NDP has no problems with the creation of a port authority in Oshawa, but is concerned that the government will fill its board with Conservatives.
“Since they took power, it’s been an open bar in terms of appointments for their friends.”
Liberal MP John McCallum said the Oshawa Port Authority needs strong leadership, and is concerned that the board and its president will be “100-per-cent patronage.”