Eventually every B.C. government finds someone to bully and scapegoat, often to deflect attention away from more pressing matters – like a wobbly economy. During the reign of Christy Clark, for instance, the whipping boy has become BC Ferries, an easy and convenient target if there ever was one.
You don't have to look far to find someone upset about the cost of fares, or service cuts in remote coastal communities in the province. And then there were the headlines generated a few years ago by the corporation's former president, David Hahn, aka, The Million Dollar Man. There is little question that Mr. Hahn's salary was out of whack compared with others running Crown-like entities in the province. And critics of the corporation used the salary revelation as a symbol of the kind of excess they suggested was endemic throughout the operation.
Clearly, Transportation Minister Todd Stone is one of those who subscribes to the notion that there is waste and fat and outlandish employee perks that could be cut at Ferries to help reduce costs. He suggested in an interview with the Vancouver Sun during the holidays that the ferry corporation needed to do a much better job of managing its internal expenditures before it could expect another dime from Victoria.
He all but said part of the problem was that under the current model, government does not have full control over the corporation, otherwise things would be better. A unique view, one must say, given the government's own management record, replete with disastrous cost overruns associated with any number of high-profile projects.
This isn't the first time the minister has taken aim at Ferries. Nor the first time he's made inflammatory statements without giving the object of his disdain even the slightest heads-up. And so it was that Ferries president Mike Corrigan heard about the minister's remarks through the media while trying to enjoy his Christmas break.
"I'm disappointed the minister would make these comments at a time when our entire cost structure is being actively reviewed by the BC Ferries Commissioner," Mr. Corrigan told me on the weekend.
Beyond that statement, however, the president mostly bit his tongue. He said Ferries commissioner Gord Macatee is doing a thorough review of the organization, including everything from salary and compensation levels to the contentious employee pass program. The commissioner will be engaging third-party experts to help with the analysis. What they find may startle the Transportation Minister, who seems to believe that a group of castoffs from TV's Dragon's Den could do a better job of running B.C.'s ferry fleet than the current crew.
For instance, Mr. Stone wonders whether the corporation's vacation division needs to exist. In fact, this division of the company now generates a profit of nearly $1-million a year. Why would anyone want to cut it?
Mr. Stone also suggested there are too many managers at Ferries. He fails to mention that a couple of years ago, the corporation won an arbitration that made 200 unionized employees management. The decision made it look like there had been a sudden surge in management levels when, in fact, the corporation was simply converting union jobs to management positions – a move sanctioned by mediator Vince Ready.
The minister also took aim at the free ferry passes given to current and even some former employees. This has been a benefit from the dawn of time at the company. It is also a taxable benefit so employees do pay for part of it. And more often than not, they are not taking up seats that would otherwise be used by paying customers. Because they have been part of the company's compensation package for so long, getting rid of it is not as simple as just snapping one's fingers and saying it's gone. It would have to be negotiated out – at what cost we don't know.
"We see the program as our primary employee engagement initiative in the company and something that helps drives other efficiencies," Mr. Corrigan said. Over the past few years, for instance, the company has reduced lost time due to injuries and accidents by 60 per cent, and absenteeism rates are down more than 50 per cent from where they were six years ago. Over the course of the current four-year performance cycle, which ends in March, 2016, the corporation has identified $75-million in savings through efficiencies.
The ferry commissioner's report is expected to be released at the end of March. Mr. Corrigan does not sound worried. Recently others, including the auditor-general and comptroller-general, have found the company to be generally well run.
If Mr. Macatee reaches the same verdict, it will be interesting to see what the government does. Because the Transportation Minister seems to have already reached a different conclusion without much evidence to back it up.