Masse Speaks on Bill C-23: Marine Ports and Borders

39:2 Hansard - 29 (2007/12/3)

Mr. Brian Masse (Windsor West, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill C-23 and I would like to thank the member for Acadie—Bathurst for his speech. I would also like to thank the hon. member for ensuring that I would be able to speak today. Having travelled from Windsor, I just arrived moments ago in Ottawa and rushed to the House. It has been an interesting process given today's snow day.

I would like to highlight a few things in Bill C-23 that are important: first, the elements of why ports are important for our modern infrastructure; and second, the relationship that they have relative to the communities where they are situated.

We have a number of large ports like Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Halifax. They have played national historic roles. But we also have other smaller ports like Windsor, the Windsor Port Authority, which has played an important historical role but can also be part of a greater prosperity for all of us.

BillC-23 has some significant changes. The answers to questions that I have posed to the government have yet to be responded to. Some of the questions relate to how the ports actually operate and relate to the security provisions of the bill. Others relate to the fact that there really has not been that type of structural analysis done on the ports relating to how they operate with municipalities for example and land use agreements.

We are looking at a bill, Bill C-23, that will open up the ports in a very different way. They are going to be able to borrow more funds as they have difficulty with the process that is currently in place. It is very antiquated. The bill will allow ports to borrow up to 20% of a capital project for their actual operations. Second, there is a two-tiered system. One will be enjoyed by the larger ports and then the other system that is currently in place will be refined for the smaller ports.

I am not sure that having a two-tiered system is the most advantageous way to go forward. Therefore, I am hesitant to support that idea on the surface. We look forward to hearing from witnesses at committee about that to see whether or not the small and medium size ports feel they are at a disadvantage. That is critical.

When we look at a government that is run really by one individual, with very much a top down approach, the same philosophy can apply to the ports. We might have the larger ones enjoying a greater advantage over the medium and smaller ones which can actually provide some great economic development opportunities and might want to compete to become great ports in Canada.

We have to be careful as we amend this legislation not to constrict them too much, so that if they are competing among their peers, they do not have a disadvantage that the incumbents would take advantage of from this type of a situation. We want to make sure that this issue is going to be addressed. We will be looking forward to those ports coming forth and assessing the current situation.

One of the things highlighted in the bill, which is important and we have to wonder what the logic is behind it, is a reduction in the boards that we have right now.

For example, the Vancouver port will have a reduction from its current seven to fourteen directors. In wearing my old municipal hat, the municipality appointed the individuals to the board. They were independent and they reported back to the larger body of the board, but they also had some accountability because the persons would have very much the feel of the city and the community. They would have a commitment being part of the board of directors.

What we are seeing, it appears, is a hollowing out of that membership. Once again, and this is what worries me, we could have people hand-picked from Ottawa to sit on these boards. We could have problems with that.

Many people across the country who are appointed to boards of port authorities are very competent and sit there as representatives, basically for the public trust, but what worries me as well is that we have seen in the past certain appointed positions becoming very politicized. The previous government was notorious for this. The current government has also shown the same behaviour.

In our area of Windsor, for example, the government actually sacked a judge who was very competent, who went through the Liberal patronage process. He did a good job and we wanted to keep him. However, the government sacked him anyway because of a political ideology that drives the beast.

Therefore, what we would call for is a review of this. If there is going to be the potential of a clearing out, so to speak, of all these boards of directors across the country, I would be very worried given the fact that we have not seen the ethical breakthrough so necessary by the government when it comes to patronage appointments.

No one has to look any further than the fact that the Conservatives appointed an unelected member to the Senate to be the public works minister to know that there is no measure they will not undertake, especially since it was a big break from their actual election platform. Subsequently, when we look at some of these other appointments, that is what we see.

The directors are very important. They reflect the decisions of the board and they have influence in the community.

With that, I want to move into one of the elements that is going to be loosened up in this bill. It is the availability of used port land for alternative uses. That could actually be other business plans. It could be very good for the port in many respects and also for the community. What I have asked the department, though, and it has not responded yet, is what the procedure would be to deal with the municipality affected by this.

Coming from a land planning background, I can tell members that everything is very much tied to the planning basis for sustainability, for the environment and for fairness when it comes to commercial, retail and also residential usage and so forth.

I noticed when reviewing the parliamentary secretary's speech on this matter that he took a particular interest in making sure that with these third-party agreements they did not allow condos to go on this land. However, that does not take away the fact that there could be other types of uses that could be in conflict or competition with adjacent property, for which private sector or public sector holders, whether the municipalities or the provinces, actually already have land agreements and uses on the sites.

If there is no process put in place that actually allows the municipality to look at its official plan to vet that accordingly, then we would see a circumvention of that. That is bad for the environment and bad for planning. It certainly has already been a situation that I have seen a couple of times. City land or government land has actually skirted the actual municipal processes in Ontario because the municipalities do not have to go through that same process. So what we literally have is almost an agreement by the principals involved to not have to go through the planning advisory steps. They thus avoid the Ontario Municipal Board and so forth.

One of the things we want is to see that element really defined in a crystal clear way so that the local people and the regional people who are sitting on this board have a clear understanding of the vetting process in terms of third party agreements for the use of their land.

The encouragement for this from the government is so that the ports can actually move to another level of development and also at the same time retain, if they have surplus land, some economic activity on it to actually help the port. Also, it is so they have control of those lands, so that should there in the future be the necessary requirement to use those lands, the control would be there.

Coming from Windsor West, I think that is a wise principle. We have the busiest land border crossing in North America and, in fact, for truck traffic it is the busiest in the world. We have 10,000 trucks per day that traverse this crossing.

What we have witnessed is the lack of planning because this was a private bridge. It still is a private bridge that the government of the day did not take advantage of in terms of appropriately planning out the area around it. It is now boxed in, so to speak, and even if significant land is acquired, there is no opportunity to meet the modern challenges for security and trade that are necessary and are being mandated by the United States.

Despite the platitudes of the Prime Minister, and no matter how many times he meets with the Americans and works with them, what is actually happening on the ground is that the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies are imposing new procedures, new services and new barriers for our trade through there.

Therefore, I think this principle of actually having the ports retain this land for future usage is wise, but the terms, conditions and rules are very important.

I have touched upon just a few elements tonight and only have a minute to conclude, but I do want to say the New Democrats are looking for a modern port that is also going to be very efficient in its security. Right now, less than 3% of cargo coming into this country is checked. This is a huge security risk that the government has completely ignored. That has to end.

On that note, we will be looking at this bill at committee to make improvements so it can go forward, but it has to be done with a national concept as well as a local one, because that is how things operate with the best efficiency.

Mr. Brian Masse:
Mr. Speaker, those are two very good questions from my colleague.

With regard to user fees, what is happening in my region is critical with the private Ambassador Bridge, and the government is actually insistent on a move to a public-private partnership for our new crossing in the Windsor-Detroit region. We are adding another border tax on top of our structure, which is an unnecessary profit. Second, it affects competition, production and investment in our own area. Adding this cost structure and the extra tax regime very much impedes decisions for economic development in Canada.

I agree with the member that we have to keep those fees low. To do so, we should actually have a return that goes back into the investment. We should not create an empire for the sake of creating one, but for the sake of efficiency, and procure the development on that land, which will lower fees and make it competitive.

I worry about the ideological stance of the government to make everything a business, a micro-business in itself. In fact, it has been creating miniature bureaucracies. On top of that, it has been introducing new taxes, and that is not acceptable.

The second point the member made is in terms of just in time delivery. I will be very quick. One of the exciting things we could actually get into is short sea shipping. That is one of the things this country has not taken full advantage of. I would hope that it would be done with a national shipbuilding policy, because we certainly would have a great manufacturing base to which to return this element to Canada's historic platform, as it was before.

Mr. Brian Masse:
Mr. Speaker, I am happy to hear from the member for Burnaby—Douglas, who has been a good advocate for Vancouver and that area. He is right in expressing concern about this.

One of the important things a local board can do with some type of representation is reduce conflict before it happens. It is able to identify those issues that might be problematic to the adjacent property owners, the adjacent users and, on top of that, the regional people they are serving. Those elements come to the surface a lot more quickly then than they do by having somebody appointed from Ottawa from some dark chamber somewhere. We are talking about having people on the ground floor who are able to deal with the issues on a regular basis and are able to unplug some of the difficult problems before they manifest themselves.

When we look at the reduction of boards, it sounds great. We want to reduce these elements, but at the same time, if we do not do it with the concept of being proactive, wanting to reduce conflict and having the foresight to think about what the community will be in 25, 50 and 75 years because we and our families are being raised there, we will lose an element that is very important for the strategic connection between a port and its community.