Things that weren’t David Hahn’s fault at BC Ferries

As his tenure draws to a close the press keeps calling David Hahn a “lightning rod” for public discontent with BC Ferries.

As his tenure draws to a close the press keeps calling David Hahn a “lightning rod” for public discontent with BC Ferries.

“I think the screaming started the day I was hired,” he said in an interview last week. In defending fare increases during the same interview he shifted blame to the province. As much as I dislike his constant and arrogant deflection of criticism, there’s an ounce of truth here. He was cornered by public policy from the outset.

Political decisions had created a political fiasco for BC Ferries. Building the fast cats sounded like a progressive move for BC. If it worked it would have been good for BC Ferries and good for BC shipbuilding. But it was bungled so badly that it ended in wasted millions and unused ships. Taxpayer wrath over the issue helped sweep Gordon Campbell to power in May 2001.

Team Campbell, understandably, was anxious to distance themselves. With BC Ferries it became a simple decision. Removing BC Ferries from the direct control of government would disguise government involvement. They would give BC Ferries a set budget and get ready to shrug and point if BC Ferries couldn’t meet targets. When David Hahn was brought into the sandbox in 2003, he was given a broken toy.

The new BC Ferries would run as a business. The business would raise the money to rebuild the decrepit fleet. It would perhaps contract out routes. And the Liberals set out a very Machiavellian course for selling the plan to taxpayers, as we learned in 2009 with the leak of a 2002 “communications plan” to spin the privatization. All of this was firmly established before David Hahn was hired.

When the privatization was announced, Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer wrote, “The revised ferry corporation would be hard pressed to deliver a worse performance than its predecessor over the past decade.”

And this, for all the careful scheming, is what the province failed to anticipate. The new BC Ferries might have been hard pressed a deliver a worse performance, but, pay a guy enough money and it can be managed. The government didn’t predict Hahn’s empire building – or the BC Ferries board’s willingness to play along with it.

At TPR we stayed publicly close to BC Ferries to protect our vital transportation route, but behind the scenes the cracks were showing. In early 2005 I was at Fleet House to fight the indifference to marketing that had been growing since Hahn took charge. We argued that without marketing, particularly in the face of other threats, ridership would fall.

We had assumed that making BC Ferries into a business meant the rules of business would be applied; that services would be advertised, and through competitive pricing the product would be sold. Instead Mr. Hahn cut marketing almost completely, and in the face of dwindling sales raised prices. There’s no satisfaction in having been proven correct on this front. Applying Hahn’s business model, I couldn’t keep a corner store in business for a week (without an endless pot of provincial capital).

And here we stand today. There are new ships in the fleet – the second set of new ships, one might add – though these burn more fuel than the ones they replaced. Contracting out routes failed. Fares skyrocketed. Ridership is in freefall. The only attempt at marketing is a bizarre sales blitz in Vancouver. But Hahn played the hand he was dealt, for better or worse, and the province was the dealer.

BC Ferries is categorically in worse shape than it was at the time of privatization, but I don’t point my finger at only David Hahn. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

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