SAINT JOHN – The city’s port authority should review its labour practices, focus on South American markets and amalgamate with other Atlantic ports in a bid to become more competitive, says former premier Frank McKenna.

“If you put all of the Atlantic ports together, they are still smaller than the port of Vancouver and probably smaller than the port in Prince Rupert,” said McKenna, current deputy chairman of the TD Bank Financial Group.

“We’ve got to get more mass, we need scale, if we’re going to be a power in the marketplace.”

McKenna’s comments came at a keynote speech during a port authority conference in Saint John on Tuesday. The former Canadian ambassador to the United States urged his audience of shippers, port officials and civil servants to look at major reforms that would allow the city to “move faster” than its competitors.

The most controversial proposal would have the port authority review its labour practices in a move to shed costs. McKenna cited a Transport Canada report that recommended British Columbia authorities eliminate a major union, hiring halls and over-manning practices that dampen the bottom line.

“I don’t pretend to understand the current state of labour practices at your port; perhaps it’s the most efficient machine that was ever assembled,” McKenna said. “(But) General Motors and its unions didn’t think there was much need for reform, either, several years ago and now people are scrambling for jobs by the tens of thousands.

“Everyone should look in the mirror and decide whether or not the time has come to look at practices to see if it’s remotely possible to improve them.”

McKenna stressed ports in North America and across the globe are investing billions more than their Saint John counterpart. He said these investments, and the Port City’s relative size, create a major competitive disadvantage.

The British Columbia government, for example, has recently invested $3.5 billion in its ports, with a $1-billion contribution from Ottawa. The New York port is sinking $6 billion into infrastructure improvements as it prepares for a surge of commercial shipment following the Panama Canal expansion.

The Saint John port, McKenna said, should seek to overcome these disadvantages by amalgamating with other Atlantic port authorities, a proposal Premier Shawn Graham is mulling.

A single port authority would allow Atlantic ports to approach major customers and the federal government with a single voice, giving them more power at the negotiating table, said McKenna.

“Our biggest enemy here in Atlantic Canada is the fact that we can be fractious and divided at times when focus and cohesion is needed,” he said.

“With a single port authority running multiple ports, we would be much larger, we’d have more critical mass, we’d have more assets and more clout in so many ways.”

Turning to the port’s activities abroad, McKenna said South America should become an area of focus as it is a major emerging market and favourably located for overseas shipments.

In fact, the distance between Saint John and Santos, Brazil, is a single nautical mile longer than the distance between New York City and the same destination, said Alwyn Soppitt, president and chief executive officer of the Saint John Port Authority.

Brazil, with more than half of South America’s population, reported last year’s GDP growth was 3.7 per cent, compared to Canada’s 2.7 per cent.

The Saint John Port Authority, with the New Brunswick Southern Gateway Council, is considering how it can best take advantage of the Brazilian market, said Soppitt.

McKenna praised the move and suggested New Brunswick is capable of playing a larger role on the global stage.

“We’re used to dealing with a harsher environment and we’re used to overcoming the adversity that’s associated with that,” said McKenna. “The fact is we’re smaller, but we move faster.”