Bill C-452 (Historical)
An Act to amend the Competition Act (inquiry into industry sector)
This bill was last introduced in the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session, which ended in March 2011.
This bill was previously introduced in the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session.
Robert Vincent Bloc
Introduced as a private member’s bill. (These don’t often become law.)
Introduced, as of Oct. 1, 2009
(This bill did not become law.)
This is from the published bill. The Library of Parliament often publishes better independent summaries.
This enactment amends the Competition Act to authorize the Commissioner of Competition to inquire into an entire industry sector.
March 10th, 2011 / 10:15 a.m.
Robert Vincent Shefford, QC
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to present a petition signed by 4,203 people.
This petition calls on the government to move forward with Bill C-452, which would authorize the Commissioner of Competition to conduct an inquiry of her own accord into the fluctuating price of gasoline. This is even more important these days, since the price at the pumps changes from one day to the next.
Members from every party hear from the public every day. These fluctuating gas prices make no sense. This petition calls on the government to authorize the Competition Bureau to conduct inquiries to determine whether consumers are paying a fair price for gasoline.
Private Members' Business
March 10th, 2011 / 5:55 p.m.
Robert Vincent Shefford, QC
moved that the bill be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to take the floor in this third reading debate, which will wrap up the efforts of my political party and myself to convince the hon. members of the House of the merits of Bill C-452, An Act to amend the Competition Act (inquiry into industry sector), which continues to be a current concern. The bill would give the Competition Bureau the requisite powers to carry out its investigations.
The price of a barrel of oil was in free fall at one time, but because of the situation in Libya, the price shot up last week. The price of a barrel of oil has skyrocketed, and that has repercussions on prices at the pump. That is the problem.
The Competition Bureau could conduct an inquiry. Consumers are not clueless and they are not idiots. They are aware that the gasoline sitting in underground tanks at service stations was bought at a much cheaper price. Even if the price of a barrel of oil has risen to $104 or $120, there should be no direct increase at the pump because that gas cost much less. It is easier for the oil companies and service stations to raise the pump price as soon as there is an increase. People feel they are being taken hostage by the oil companies.
I will give one concrete example. There is a Canadian Tire with a service station near where I live. On Tuesday, the price at 7 a.m. was $1.17. Three hours later, at the same service station, it was $1.25. What happened between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m.? I have no idea, but the price rose by 8¢. Twenty-four hours later, the price was back down to $1.17. How does one explain to the population that the price of gas can fluctuate in 24 hours even though nothing has happened? The retailer has pocketed 8¢ a litre, and I think it is the consumers who lose out. That is why consumers want a bill so that the Competition Bureau can conduct inquiries into the petroleum sector.
When I speak of the petroleum sector, it is not just the price at the pump. We already know that when the price of a barrel of oil goes up, the cost of refining goes down, but the opposite happens as well. When the price of a barrel of oil goes down, the cost of refining goes up.
I asked that question of the Competition Bureau and in the committee. I was told that the oil companies do not talk to each other, but how can it be that every Monday, without having talked, all the refiners in Quebec and Canada have the same prices at the pump? If the refining price is set at 8¢, the following month it is 13¢, 15¢ or 16¢. We do not see a change in the price at the pump because the oil companies are different. That is what we think, but that is not the case. In fact, the oil companies all buy from the same place. The refiner's gas and the gas in the underground tanks at the service station come from the same place. So how can the refining price be the same?
There used to be one refinery in Montreal and one in Quebec City, but they were owned by two different companies. Yet, every Monday, the price at the refinery was the same. Consumers would expect that each Monday there will be a disparity between the two oil companies or brands at the gas stations.
How can the price be the same if they are not talking? How can the same litre of oil be refined at the same price? I asked the Competition Bureau that question, but it was confused and did not understand why the price was the same. I asked if it would investigate, but it said no. It claimed to have enough investigative powers. But what kind of investigative powers? Personally, I do not think that it has any. The bureau said that it had conducted an investigation in the Sherbrooke area and that it was able to prove that there was collusion among the oil companies to fix prices at the pump. But they needed an informant.
Someone had to phone the Competition Bureau and tell them he had received threats to force him to increase his price at the pump. That is when the Competition Bureau launched an investigation. In order to get an investigation going, someone must act as an informer. I tried it myself. The Competition Bureau said we could call to complain about the price of gas in our city or town, if it was higher than in the neighbouring city or town, and if we did not understand why gas was so expensive at the pump.
Many people in my riding complained to the Competition Bureau, asking for an investigation. However, it never did, because there was no whistle-blowing. The Competition Bureau was not provided with all the evidence required to start an investigation.
Do people know what competition means for oil companies? It is not competition between companies but, rather, between municipalities. If a municipality is large, gas will cost a lot more, because the population is much larger. Conversely, if a municipality located 10 kilometres away is much smaller, the price of gas will be much lower. Oil companies say that this is competition. People living in the larger municipality should fill up in the small town. That is what they call competition.
It goes even further. In Montreal, some streets are busy and the price at the pump is much higher than it is four or five blocks away, where there is less traffic. Again, that is what oil companies call competition. However, for consumers that is not competition, it is gouging.
We have to put gas in our car. Oil companies make billions of dollars in profits every year, but I think they take the money directly from our pockets. And I am not the only who thinks so. If one were to ask people from each and every riding in Canada whether they think they are getting taken by oil companies, I am sure their answer would be yes.
Is it so hard to give the Competition Bureau an investigative power? We often hear political parties wonder whether that is done elsewhere, and whether we would be the only ones to do so. The fact is that, at one time, the Competition Bureau had a power to investigate. It had it until 1986, when the Conservatives of the day came to office. They took that investigative power away from the Competition Bureau, and said it was because that industry had already been investigated.
An investigation can be carried out into any industry. We could also talk about the construction industry in Montreal, where there is talk that bids may have been rigged. The Competition Bureau can investigate; however, at present, it cannot do so on its own initiative. There has to be an informer. Because of this, pressure from industry lobbies resulted in the government of the day taking away the investigative powers of the Competition Bureau.
Do other countries have investigative powers like those we want to give to Canada's Competition Bureau? The answer is yes. In the United States, this type of study can be initiated in three ways: Congress uses its legislative authority to ask the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, to draft a specific report; members of Congress or of a congressional committee, without using its legislative authority, ask the FTC to conduct a study; and the FTC initiates or conducts an investigation on its own. There are no formal criteria limiting what kind of research and policy inquiries the FTC can undertake.
We would also like to point out the situation that exists in the United Kingdom with the Office of Fair Trading.
The OFT has carried out market studies of various sectors of the economy, in particular liability insurance, new car warranties, private dentistry, taxi services, proprietary credit cards, and pharmacies.
...The OFT may also make a market investigation reference to the Competition Commission if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that any feature, or combination of features, of a market prevents, restricts or distorts competition.
Hence, the United Kingdom can conduct its own investigations. Also, the European Union has the following provision:
When the trend of trade between member states, the rigidity of prices or other circumstances suggest that competition may be restricted or distorted within the common market, the Commission may conduct an inquiry...
Thus, the European Union can also initiate an investigation.
Canada is often compared to Australia. In committees, we often ask what Australia is doing, perhaps to follow its lead. In Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission can conduct general investigations into all sectors of the economy. The commissioner can conduct investigations on his own initiative. We want to do the same thing.
In 1998, when the CITT Act was passed, Canada conducted four inquiries. However, as I said earlier, there have been no inquiries related to competition issues under the Inquiries Act since the repeal of section 47 in 1986. It is important to mention that even the Commissioner of Competition, Konrad von Finckenstein, described the flaws in the Competition Act in his testimony before the Standing Committee on Industry on May 5, 2003. He said:
While the bureau's mandate includes the very important role of being investigator and advocate for competition, the current legislation does not provide the bureau with the authority to conduct an industry study... It seems to me that it would be preferable to have a study on the overall situation carried out by an independent body that would have authority, that would be able to summon witnesses and gather information. It should also have the power to protect confidential information that someone is not necessarily going to want to share, but which would be vital in order to reach a conclusion based on the real facts.
In the United States, a study on oil companies was conducted to determine whether the refineries had tried to increase the price of gas at the pumps for consumers. It is also important for consumers in Canada and Quebec that a similar study be conducted by the Competition Bureau.
I want to refer you to an article about a report. On Saturday, May 25, 2002, the magazine Les Affaires reported that refiners had tried to drive up gas prices at the pump in the U.S. by deliberately reducing supply.
I can say right now—even today we have heard stories about oil companies—that since the closure of the refinery in Montreal, the price of gas is much lower. That is why it is important for the Competition Bureau to have the authority to investigate.
Private Members' Business
March 10th, 2011 / 6:15 p.m.
Mike Wallace Burlington, ON
Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to rise this evening to participate in the third reading debate of Bill C-452.
This private member's bill seeks to amend the Competition Act to provide Canada's Commissioner of the Competition Bureau with the power to launch a broad-based inquiry into an industry sector in Canada.
I will give a brief history of this bill in Parliament.
Bill C-452 was added to the order of precedence last spring and referred to the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, of which I am a member, just prior to the summer recess of Parliament.
The industry committee took up its consideration of Bill C-452 in two sessions this past December prior to the Christmas break. With the support of all three opposition parties, the committee members agreed to report the bill back to the House of Commons without amendment. This is where we stand today.
The government has raised several concerns with Bill C-452 over the last number of months and I will highlight a number of them.
First, it is not evident that the new powers proposed in the bill are required or helpful given the authority that the competition commissioner already has under the existing legislation. The 2009 amendments to the Competition Act provided the commissioner with significantly stronger tools to take action against cartel activities, which are a source of concern underlying this bill.
Second, there is a risk that authorizing this use of formal investigation powers to conduct open-ended inquiries into industry sectors could pose significant compliance and reputation costs on the businesses that they affect. This would also impose significant financial and human resource costs on the Competition Bureau. This would require the commissioner to reallocate resources away from her current enforcement priorities, including cartel investigations and other anti-competitive conduct that negatively impacts the day-to-day lives of Canadians.
Third, during the committee hearings it became evident that a misconception regarding the commissioner's ability to initiate an investigation into wrongdoing or, specifically, an incorrect concern that she does not have this power, may be a driving force behind the bill.
While appearing at the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology in December, the representative from the Competition Bureau clarified that the competition commissioner does not require the powers in this bill to discharge any of her enforcement responsibilities. The commissioner already has clear authority under the act to initiate her own investigation into the actions of businesses and individuals whenever there is evidence that the enforcement provisions have been, or are about to be violated.
More important to our debate today, she does not have to wait for the filing of a complaint by the public or for instructions from the minister. In fact, the committee was told that at the time of the hearings, approximately 30% of the ongoing formal investigations under the act were initiated by the commissioner without having received a complaint regarding that matter. Clearly the commissioner is able to exercise her discretion to act whenever the circumstances warrant.
In our debate on the merits of the bill today, we believe it is important that we also reflect on the advice that the Canadian Bar Association provided to the committee in December. During their testimony, representatives of the Canadian Bar Association examined the types of outcomes resulting from such broad-based industry inquiries. Their overall conclusion was that they could not foresee any circumstance where there would be any overreaching benefit to society resulting from this bill.
The Canadian Bar Association explored three possible outcomes.
First, at the end of such an inquiry the commissioner concludes that the sector in question is sufficiently competitive. In that situation, the bureau would likely be widely criticized, both for significant financial costs and for disruptions it imposed on the daily business operations of Canadian businesses, only to confirm that the market in question was indeed competitive.
Second, the sector is not sufficiently competitive. However, this could be owing to such aspects as the structure of the market and is in no way related to the conduct that offends the specific enforcement provisions of the Competition Act.
As we are aware, the commissioner does not gain any new authority through the bill that would allow her to impose structural changes on the market. As a result, in these circumstances there would be a finding that the market is not competitive, but there would not be any avenues available to the commissioner to address the problem. Such an outcome would only result in widespread frustration to the entire process.
A third outcome that the Bar Association highlighted is that the commissioner could determine that the industry is not sufficiently competitive and that it is indeed the result of activities that violate specific provisions of the Competition Act.
The bar cautioned committee members that the bureau's ability to pursue a subsequent case using its enforcement powers may be potentially undermined on account of the legal due process concerns arising from the manner in which the evidence was collected.
In particular, the bar was of the view that serious legal challenges could arise regarding the rights against self-incrimination, where information is compelled from a person for the purpose of a market-wide inquiry and then later used in enforcement proceedings against that person.
Even in this case, where anti-competitive behaviour has been identified, the commissioner's ability to challenge the behaviour may be hindered because of the legal constraints that could arise from this bill.
The bar also took the opportunity to remind committee members of the fundamental objective that the Competition Act is designed to address, which is to protect the competitive process and not the day-to-day operations of specific markets. This is done through targeted enforcement action against specific anti-competitive conduct. The act is not intended to regulate the operations of a market.
In conclusion, I want to remind the House that it has only been 24 months since Parliament passed the most significant amendments to the Competition Act in 20 years.
During the industry committee's review of Bill C-452, both the Canadian Bar Association and representatives from the bureau emphasized the value and clarity provided by these new laws, which make it clear and unequivocal that it is illegal to agree with one's competitor on price, market allocation or output levels.
In effect, this government provided the competition commissioner with access through the amended legislation to new and powerful provisions that clearly strike at the heart of the concerns that underlie this legislative initiative.
It is important that we allow more time before we move to consider further changes to such an important piece of the framework of legislation. Only in that way will we be able to judge the full effect of the new provisions that this government has introduced to the Competition Act.
Private Members' Business
March 10th, 2011 / 6:25 p.m.
Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the comments made by the member, but I do not necessarily agree with what he said. At the end of the day, the passage of a bill of this nature is in the best interests of our country and consumers, ultimately. In fact, I support the bill, as well as the Liberal Party critic. We will have to wait to see what happens at third reading.
One thing I would like to recognize is the fact that some of these issues are consumer-oriented and speak to Canadians in a very real and tangible way. Some of those issues include the price of gas, banking fees and things of this nature, issues that average Canadians have to face day in and day out.
Let us take a look at the impact of the price of gas. The percentage of the overall population that believes there is something wrong in the gas industry is immense. I was affiliated with the gas industry as a very young man, at the age of 11. I pumped gas. If the corner gas station put the price of gas at x cents, other stations copied that price or they would get a phone call telling them to match that price. They had to be competitive with the price.
Even back in the early 1970s, consumers felt that there were a few gas companies and the price of gas always seemed to be the same or close to it. There was a sense of frustration as to how to justify the increases, especially if we take a look at it in the last number of years. Four or five years the price of a litre of gas was 80¢.
I just sent a text to my assistant in Winnipeg to find out the price of gas at a local station there. It is $1.15 for a litre of gas. I have seen it well over $1.20 a litre. Think of the impact that has on the economy. Let us say someone burns 40 litres, which is it not much. A person can drive a Cobalt for a week and burn 40 litres very easily. That is a modest car that many people drive and is somewhat gas efficient.
If the price is $1.20 a litre, 40 litres would cost $48 compared to a few years back when it was 80¢ a litre and it would have cost $32. That is a $16 difference. Imagine what that consumer could do with that $16. Maybe he or she could purchase a TV or go out for a meal. Those are the types of purchases that could be made.
If we were to canvass the average person at the pump putting gas in his or her vehicle, that individual would say there has to be some sort of price fixing going on because it just does not make sense. A very small minority would disagree with that assessment.
In good part, the Canadians are looking to the House and asking what Ottawa is prepared to do to deal with this problem. I do not know why the government would fear Bill C-452. It says that it already allows the commissioner to conduct inquiries. This legislation would provide a lot more clarity to it. There would no doubt that the commissioner would have the authority.
Today the commissioner has the responsibility for the administration and enforcement of the Competition Act. He can launch inquiries to a good degree and challenge matters before the Competition Tribunal. He can make recommendations on criminal matters to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He can intervene as a competition advocate, whether it is in a provincial or federal arena.
What would the bill actually do? It would allow, in a very clear and concise way, the commissioner to look at an entire sector and say that he or she is concerned about the perception of the average consumer or a vast majority of Canadians toward price-fixing at the gas pump. The commissioner can investigate, call witnesses, hold individuals, corporations and boards accountable for the price of gas. What is wrong with that? Why would we not want to make our expectations perfectly clear?
There is nothing wrong with using the Competition Act in a manner which would enable and empower our commissioner to look at an industry that has caused a great deal of frustration for a good number of years. I can recall it all the way back to the 1970s. I suspect it is only a question of time. If we continue to ignore the issue, the public, as a whole, will continue to build that sense of frustration and disappointment as to why Ottawa has not responded to the needs of average consumers.
If I were anywhere in Canada, putting gas in my the car, and found out that the government had an opportunity to pass a bill of this nature, but said that it was not necessary, I would be disappointed. I would like to see a government take whatever actions it can to protect the consumer.
The government talked about a decrease in the GST. If we go from that $1.15, $1.20 a litre back to a few years ago when it was 80¢ a litre, that is a lot of money. A lot of disposable income is being gobbled up at the pump.
We can do a lot more to provide and restore confidence in the public to show the politicians in Ottawa care about the consumer, that we will not sit back and say that this is the way it has been, that it will continue to be that way and the consumer pay will pay whatever the big oil companies want to charge for gas. That would be highly irresponsible.
As has been pointed out, the price of gas causes huge ripple effects, which affect us all. In terms of the affordability of food in some of the northern parts of Manitoba and other remote areas in Canada, huge increases in the price of gas mean that to provide those communities with milk and fresh produce the price will go up dramatically as a direct result.
The Conservative Party claims to be a party that represents western Canada. Western Canada has a good number of farmers and the price of gas is hurting a lot of farmers, particularly in the Prairies. Those farmers need to have a government that recognizes the value of having someone standing up against the oil companies and holding them to account to ensure there is a higher sense of competition. At the end of the day, the farmers are paying a lot more for their gas and that is going to have to be passed on to someone.
We are allowing a few in certain geographic areas of the world to get exceptionally wealthy, while at the other end there is more and more poverty because of issues like the oil prices. I do not believe we spend enough time talking about the cost of energy. This type of bill can go a long way—
Private Members' Business
March 10th, 2011 / 6:40 p.m.
Glenn Thibeault Sudbury, ON
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to Bill C-452, An Act to amend the Competition Act (inquiry into industry sector).
I commend my colleague, the member for Shefford, for bringing forward such an important amendment to the Competition Act. I am happy to say that the New Democratic Party will be supporting this vital legislative initiative.
In essence, this bill seeks to change the current law, which says the Commissioner of Competition can only launch an investigation when there is a concern about one or more market participants. While the bill appears to have originally been tabled to deal with the retail gasoline sector, the broad amendment makes the proposed legislation applicable for all industry sectors, including communications industries.
This is particularly important at this time, as the banking disputes over competition have been increasing over the past few months, whether it is in relation to the oil and gas sector where consumers are being gouged at the pumps by abusive practices which hurt the wallets of ordinary working and middle-class Canadians, or some other issue.
I heard my hon. colleague from Winnipeg North talk about the gas prices in his riding. I believe he said it cost $1.20 a litre. In Sudbury right now it is close to $1.30. My colleague from Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing said the price in Wawa and Elliot Lake is $1.30 in some cases.
The dispute over usage-based billing demonstrates that we need this tool to widen the scope to encapsulate not just the oil and gas sector, which we are talking about, but other major sectors of our economy as well.
In the oil and gas sector there is clearly a lack of refining capacity in Canada. Coupled with vertical integration, this basically leads to a formula that is a recipe for disaster for Canadians and their pocketbooks.
It is interesting that when the government lowered the GST with regard to oil and gas, the companies did not pass the reduction on to consumers. Prices and profits have risen significantly and not even one single organization or company has taken advantage of the opportunity to pass the 2¢ reduction on to consumers. The companies took it and put it in their own pockets. That is shameful. More important, that 2% has a large impact on working and middle-class families who are being financially squeezed during tough economic times.
Therefore, it is only fair that we examine the bill and look at the oil and gas sector as one of the variables in how it can be addressed because the bill is specifically geared to the industry sector, which is a responsible way to approach it. It allows targeting to certain areas where there is a lot of interest.
In terms of the telecommunications sector, we have the entrance of new players into the Canadian market with regard to telecom and that means more communication devices, cellphones, BlackBerrys, iPhones, and wireless service providers that are being expanded in Canada. There are those who feel there is no competition in that sector and relatively similar pricing that makes it very difficult for consumers to get a better benefit. These companies have also been receiving record profits and are quite lucrative. Almost all of the groups and organizations of the big telecommunication companies have done extremely well.
Both the current CRTC chair, and Sheridan Scott, the former commissioner, have advocated for the authority to conduct market studies during their tenures as the head of the bureau. This amendment to the Competition Act is therefore obviously something which the regulators of our telecom sector deem necessary for bringing Canada's telecommunications regime into the 21st century. We have seen there are flaws in this regime and this bill is an important step in redressing these shortcomings.
Another issue raised often with regard to this issue is credit cards, something I have been talking about quite often. New Democrats have been calling for a number of credit card reforms. I have been pushing this issue to the forefront. The Minister of Finance is in favour of a voluntary agreement. It is clear that we have deficient credit card competition in Canada. There are some groups and organizations that are more progressive, but at the same time it is seen basically as a system that is stuck where the vast majority of credit cards have interest rates that are quite similar.
This voluntary code is not sufficient. We need something with the necessary teeth to oversee the credit card industry. I feel this amendment would provide an extra layer of protection for ordinary Canadian consumers, as well as small and independent businesses which are routinely encountering major issues with the predatory practices which are being employed by credit card providers. This is an area where we need to see more healthy competition, but we have not.
The banks are also making record profits, and we have seen the same things there. My office receives complaints with regard to how close bank fees are among different organizations. There does not actually have to be collusion where there are brown envelopes changing hands and information being wired back and forth to predetermine the actual cost of items and passing it on to consumers. There just has to be a general acknowledgement that they will stay in a certain field of play and compete in that field of play. That is not real competition.
Small and independent retailers are facing a similar dilemma in regard to the anti-competitive practices. The big issue for retailers is the influx of premium cards, for instance, and those that offer generous air miles. Consumers are lured to those cards because they offer a chance to collect points faster and reap the rewards such as free flights, electronics and jewellery. The use of these premium cards has risen dramatically since they first hit the market in 2008. That high end plastic, such as the Visa Infinite or the World Elite MasterCard, cost more for retailers to process than other standard gold or platinum cards.
Consumers do not know that their demand for those freebies from the credit card companies is actually squeezing profits from these small businesses, because it is the merchants who really foot this bill. Ordinarily the cost per transaction ranges from 1% to 3% of every sale, whether the customer pays cash or pulls out a card. Premium cards require much more than that, considering the razor-thin margins the competitive market demands, and $5 billion is a lot.
Family debt is on the rise. The debt carried by the average Canadian household has hit $100,000, up about 78% from two decades ago. The debt to income ratio stands at a record 150%, meaning for every $1,000 after tax income, Canadian families owe an average of $1,500.
In summary, Canadian families cannot wait much longer. They are being gouged because of anti-competitive practices in every facet of their lives, be it gas, cellphones, the Internet and their credit card bills.
Bill C-452 is a very, very important first step in curtailing these abusive practices, and I call on all members of the House to support my colleague's bill.
Private Members' Business
March 10th, 2011 / 6:50 p.m.
France Bonsant Compton—Stanstead, QC
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today in the House on Bill C-452, An Act to amend the Competition Act (inquiry into industry sector) introduced by my colleague from Shefford.
Bill C-452 proposes to amend the Competition Act to give more power to the Competition Bureau. I would like to start by congratulating my colleague for this fine and very important private member’s bill. I think this is a subject that is dear to his heart and I want to salute the quality of the work he has done.
The amendment proposed by my colleague from Shefford will allow the Commissioner of Competition to initiate inquiries of his own accord into fluctuations in the price of gasoline, if there are reasonable grounds for doing so. It will therefore no longer be necessary to wait for complaints to be filed before making an inquiry. If this bill is enacted, the Competition Bureau will be better equipped to combat companies that might profit from their dominant market position to pick consumers’ pockets.
Every time gas prices rise, the governments hands us the same answer: nothing can be done, the Competition Bureau has concluded there was no agreement among the oil companies to fix prices. The truth is that there are a number of flaws in the present act. It does not allow the Competition Bureau to initiate inquiries. And when there is an inquiry, the Competition Bureau cannot really do anything with them because at present it cannot compel the production of documents or protect witnesses. Bill C-452 would eliminate these flaws by allowing the Bureau to initiate inquiries and allowing the federal Trade Tribunal to protect witnesses and seize relevant documents.
If the act is not amended, gas prices will continue to fluctuate with no justification, as is the case at present. And it will again, and still, be consumers who will continue to pay for the more dubious practices on the part of the oil companies.
Gas prices fluctuating is one thing. It is another thing when they rise stealthily and without justification. Recently, prices at the pump rose because of the political instability in north Africa. In just a few hours, prices rose spectacularly. That is completely bizarre, when we know that the events that occurred in north Africa had at that point not yet had any impact on the cost of refined gasoline that was already in Quebec. That practice is nothing more nor less than a way of making even more money on the backs of consumers, and there is a lot. It is estimated that because of collusion, retailers have overcharged Quebec consumers by as much as $100 million.
The Bloc Québécois recently supported Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act, to fix price errors at the pump. But that bill does not solve the problems of collusion like the ones recently disclosed in Quebec and does not prevent sudden increases in the price of gas. The Conservative government claims that its initiative will save the public a lot of money. Gas consumption in Canada, calculated over a full year, is so high that it is completely foolish to think that bill can have any impact on consumers’ wallets. That is why we in the Bloc Québécois believe that in order to respond effectively to gas price increases, Bill C-452 must be enacted. This bill is the only thing that will have a real impact on prices at the pump.
For years, the Bloc Québécois has been pressuring the federal government to finally take action to address the rising cost of petroleum products. It has dogged the Liberal government of the day so that it would follow up on the recommendations made in 2003 by the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology. In October 2005, just before the election, the federal government finally listened to the Bloc Québécois' arguments and decided to amend the Competition Act through Bill C-19. That legislation broadened the Competition Bureau's authority to investigate and increased the maximum penalty for conspiracy. However, Bill C-19 did not follow up on all the committee's recommendations. As we know, that legislation, which was only an election ploy, died on the order paper with the election call, and we certainly could not count on the Conservative government to bring it back.
In 2007, the Bloc Québécois introduced Bill C-454, which also died on the order paper, when the election of 2008 was called.
In 2009, the Conservatives took part of the bill and included it in the budget implementation act. However, they did not see fit to allow the Competition Bureau to initiate investigations. That is why the hon. member for Shefford came back again with Bill C-452. The recent years clearly show that neither the Conservatives, nor the Liberals acted to protect consumers. By contrast, the Bloc Québécois is taking action.
For the Bloc Québécois, the only effective way to deal with the rising cost of gas is to use a global strategy. That strategy is three-pronged: to bring the industry into line, to make it contribute, and to reduce our dependency on oil.
First, we must bring the oil industry into line. The initiative of my colleague for Shefford supports that approach. It is also necessary to set up a true monitoring agency for the oil sector.
Second, the oil industry must make a contribution. With the increase of costs and oil company profits, it is important that the latter pay their fair share of taxes. How can we accept that consumers are getting poorer, while oil companies are getting richer?
Despite the recent recession and despite the rise in the price of gas, oil companies are posting record sales. In 1995, the Canadian oil and gas sector posted combined sales of $25 billion. By 2008, this figure had climbed to $148 billion. That is an increase of nearly 600%.
Now let us talk about profits. In 2003, Canada's oil sector made $17.6 billion in profits. In 2008, it made $79 billion. In other words, the net profits of Canada's oil sector more than quadrupled in just five years. The Bloc members feel that the party must end for the oil companies.
But obviously the Conservatives do not feel that way. In 2003, they supported the Liberal government's move to reduce the overall tax rate for oil companies from 28% to 21%. With the changes brought in by the Liberals, supported by the Conservatives, taxes for Canada's oil sector became more advantageous than in Texas.
But that is not enough. In 2007, in their economic statement, the Conservatives introduced tax cuts for oil companies that would see their tax rates drop to 15% in 2012. These tax cuts will enable the oil companies to pocket approximately $3.6 billion in 2012. These figures make it clear that the federal government chooses to give priority to the interests of the oil companies, at the expense of consumers.
I do not know how the Conservative members justify this to their constituents, but I know that when I meet my constituents from Compton—Stanstead, not a single one tells me that the gifts to the oil companies are justified. On the contrary, the people I meet feel cheated by this Conservative government, a government that is in league with an industry that exploits consumers' dependence on oil.
The third component of the approach proposed by the Bloc Québécois has to do with reducing consumers' dependence on oil. This makes sense and it is perfectly in line with Quebec's efforts to fight global warming. The less gas that we consume, the less money the industry will pocket and the better off our planet will be.
Private Members' Business
June 14th, 2010 / 11 a.m.
Dean Allison Niagara West—Glanbrook, ON
Mr. Speaker, from where I left off a couple of weeks ago, a concern that I find with this legislation is the relatively broad scope of powers that it would afford with such a simple change of Canada's Competition Act.
The bill would give Canada's Commissioner of Competition unlimited powers to call an inquiry into an entire industry sector, with no evidence of any wrongdoing, and place entire sectors under scrutiny, through no fault of their own.
Not only would this investigative process cause problems by shifting the focus of a company away from its day-to-day operations to co-operating with the commissioner's investigation, it would also place a great deal of pressure upon the office of the commissioner. As I said previously, the office of the commissioner is one that exercises its authority with the utmost care and responsibility. However, with what this bill is proposing, a great deal of pressure would be placed upon the office to investigate virtually any rumour of wrongdoing by the industry sector, regardless of the grounds upon which these suspicions were made known.
I had begun to talk about our government's budget implement act in the first hour of debate on Bill C-452 and would like to finish my thoughts on that.
In March 2009 this government introduced the most substantial amendments to Canada's anti-cartel laws in over 100 years. These changes introduced an outright prohibition on agreements between competitors regarding prices, output levels or market sharing. They also significantly increased the penalties for these offences to $25 million and/or 14 years in prison. To allow business to adjust, the government also allocated a one-year period for them to review their practices and bring about compliance with these measures.
With the coming into force of these provisions on March 12, the Commissioner of Competition finally has the types of improved tools she needs to aggressively pursue and convict those engaged in the most harmful types of cartel behaviour which distort competition and undermine confidence in the marketplace.
Our government has made great strides in legislation to strengthen competition and punish non-compliance of the fundamental principle of a free market system. Broadening the Commissioner of Competition's powers from simply being investigative to the much more comprehensive level of launching inquiries may quickly prove to be ill-thought, both in terms of time and resources.
One thing our government seems to recognize more than the opposition parties is that just as anti-competitive behaviour drives up prices, so too does costly bureaucratic red tape.
In conclusion, the question that we must ask as we consider this measure is whether we as members of Parliament are willing to impose the types of burdens on businesses that would flow from this bill. Do we want to subject businesses to costly and time-consuming investigations where there is no evidence of wrongdoing? Is it appropriate to distract the commissioner's focus for enforcing the Competition Act?
We are very wary of imposing any new regulatory burdens on business, especially in light of today's harsh economic realities.
Private Members' Business
June 14th, 2010 / 11:05 a.m.
Martha Hall Findlay Willowdale, ON
Madam Speaker, I would like to commend my colleague for introducing Bill C-452 with regard to the Competition Act. I would like to commend all of my colleagues for participating in the debate on this particular topic. We all, I believe, understand the value of competition.
Certainly, we in the Liberal Party value and understand the importance of competition in the market and understand that a competitive economy is a more prosperous economy. We also understand the need for protecting consumers and to ensure that the market itself is not so much protected but operated in a manner that prevents distortions in the market that may result from concentration or inappropriate behaviour.
Although the Competition Act and the Commissioner of Competition have important rights, which we value in terms of investigating particular businesses and their activities, the commissioner can only do that as a result of a specific complaint from an entity, individual or some other enterprise. In the market there are times when an individual or entity may, in fact, be hesitant for competitive, market or other reasons that we may not be aware of to raise a specific complaint with the Competition Bureau. In that sense, where those situations exist, it is important to give the Commissioner of Competition the opportunity to look at an entire industry sector.
I have no intention today of raising specific industries. My view is that this is an opportunity for the Commissioner of Competition, when it is appropriate, regardless of the industry, if there are issues that have been raised that suggest that an investigation is warranted into the industry as a whole. This is indeed an improvement to the Competition Act that would allow the commissioner to do just that.
I would like to thank my colleague for introducing this bill, which would enhance the Competition Act. Liberal members understand how important it is to have marketplace competition, but we also recognize the importance of protecting consumers by ensuring that prices and products on the Canadian market comply with the law.
There have been a number of arguments put forward in debate in this House that perhaps this gives too much discretion to the Commissioner of Competition. I would argue that this is not a situation where the commissioner would undertake an investigation willy-nilly. The history of the Competition Bureau has been one of operating with significant understanding of the Canadian market in all the different industries that have been looked at.
I would also argue that the Commissioner of Competition has had the opportunity to review certain industries as a result of investigations into particular business activities, particular activities engaged in by particular enterprises. That particular study ends up being done appropriately but too often through the back door. The addition of this provision would allow the competition authorities to engage in that larger investigation of an entire industry where warranted.
To address a concern that somehow this would provide an opportunity to go looking for problems, I completely disagree with that. The history of the Competition Bureau has been one of real understanding of the need of when to be involved and when not to be involved. I will repeat my earlier comment that up until now the opportunity has only arisen when a specific complaint has been laid.
The addition of this clause would allow the Competition Bureau to investigate an entire industry sector. That would not happen out of the blue. The entire history of the Competition Bureau would suggest that any such investigation would only happen when there was sufficient information available, whether through the market or through other indications that such an investigation would in fact be warranted.
In that regard, I have considerable faith in the Competition Bureau as an entity and in the people involved not to be engaging in witch hunts but, in fact, to take advantage the addition of a clause like this one to enhance their ability to balance the needs in the Canadian market of encouraging competition and competitive activity in this country in order to ensure the most prosperous domestic economy that we can achieve. We must also ensure the greatest level of global competitiveness that we can, all the while understanding the need to ensure that consumers in Canada are able to obtain the best products at the best prices without any undue influence in the market or any distortions in the market that may be seen in any particular industry.
I want to again thank my colleague for introducing this amendment to the Competition Act. I want to thank all of my colleagues who have participated in this debate. I have heard some of the arguments against it, but I would suggest that we should have a greater level of confidence in the Competition Bureau and the people who work in the Competition Bureau to use this to enhance their ability to encourage competition, and to ensure the best market and economic opportunities, and the protections that consumers need in Canada.
I look forward to hearing continued debate.
Private Members' Business
June 14th, 2010 / 11:10 a.m.
Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill C-452. I am happy the member introduced it as it is a long overdue measure in Canada. It would amend the Competition Act to authorize the Commissioner of Competition to inquire into an entire industry sector.
For the past 100 years, we have had a situation that is not necessarily peculiar to the gasoline industry but it is an industry that the average consumer can relate to. For many years consumers have been phoning their politicians and telling us that there is something wrong in the gasoline retailing industry. When one gas station raises the price, the one across the street raises it a couple of minutes later, and then when one lowers it, the other lowers it as well. They work in concert.
Over the last number of years numerous studies have been done on price-fixing in the gasoline retailing industry. After about 150 studies, many feet thick sitting on the desk of the minister, the conclusion is always the same. We know something is going on, we know someone is doing something but we do not know how they are doing it and we cannot prove that they are doing it. That is why we have not made progress.
From 1988 to 1999, I was the consumer critic in the opposition in Manitoba and among the many issues that I dealt with as the consumer critic, one of them was the area of prices increases. We looked at the regulation of gas prices in the Maritimes and concluded that was not the way to go because the regulations seemed to be always going up to the highest price. The minister of the day, Jim Ernst, had a very open mind on this issue. He was not taking the side of the industry but he was prepared to let things go as far as they could. He commissioned a study at the time and once again the same conclusion was that the law had to be changed, that we were not catching the industry because the law was not broad enough.
That is a federal responsibility. The member is a federal member and he is doing what has to be done in this situation.
The government said that it brought in new changes in its omnibus budget bill last year, and I applaud it for the changes, but the member who just spoke for the government said that we should stop there because we do not want to give the Competition Bureau unlimited powers. It could go on a wild goose chase and tie up the companies in red tape and cost the economy a tremendous amount of money on some sort of whim.
I do not know where the member got his notes on this subject but the fact is that having tough laws are what prevent businesses from doing exactly what we are trying to prevent, which is price fix and collude.
In terms of price-fixing, we always think of large industries. We think of the gasoline industry, the credit card industry and other major industries but price-fixing and collusion can happen with small entities as well.
Price-fixing can appear in very small businesses. In a small town, two real estate firms could get together and decide that commission rates will all be 5%, 6% or 7%. Travel agencies in a small market could get together and collude. Until the Competition Bureau laid down the law a number of years ago and sent out promotional videos that indicated to the industry that this would not be tolerated, many businesses were unaware that it was even against the law. In other words, there was a law but the businesses were not aware of it.
However, once the Competition Bureau became proactive and started to chase the travel industry and the real estate industry, little businesses became aware that it was against the law and if they were doing it, and some were, they stopped doing it. We need very stringent laws, strict fines and we need promotion so that businesses do not get involved in it.
A year or two ago, no lesser a company than Sotheby's, the big worldwide auction firm, we saw two major auction houses in England come together and set prices for auctioning off items at Sotheby's. This practice went on for two or three years until one of the customers who was auctioning his store of art decided to investigate and started to make complaints. Eventually, one of the employees of Sotheby's or the other firm went to the authorities and gave all the information. Can anyone guess what happened? As a result, one of the firm's owners went to jail for a few months and, if he did not go to jail, he certainly paid very big fines, but the company is back to competing again. There was an end to the price-fixing.
However, that only happened because a customer was motivated to investigate, make the complaints and the charges to get things done.
In this House, we had the Liberals in power for 13 years. I have read the speeches in Hansard on this bill and others, and the Liberals have absolutely no credibility on this issue. They were the government all those years and there is only one member of the entire Liberal caucus who has any credibility on this issue at all and that is the member for Pickering—Scarborough East because, while the Liberals were the government, he was the lone member who actually attacked his own government and said that it should take off the blinders, that price-fixing was going on in the retail gasoline business and that something needed to be done about it. What did the Liberals do to him? They simply moved him back a couple of rows and ignored him.
The Conservative government has made some tentative steps, and I applaud it for that, but it is important for the member's bill go to committee where we can call in witnesses and discuss at length the matter of adding on extra powers for the Commissioner of Competition to inquire into the entire industry sector, which is what we want to do.
There is an another reason we want to do this. In case there are some industries that want to continue to flaunt the laws because they do not think that even the new penalties and laws are strong enough, then we want to give the commissioner the power to initiate her own investigations and not have to take direction from the minister, which is what happened during those 13 years of inaction under the Liberals and the previous 100 years of inaction in this country.
Let us pass this bill on to committee, let us study it and let us give more power to the commissioner.
Private Members' Business
June 14th, 2010 / 11:20 a.m.
Serge Cardin Sherbrooke, QC
Madam Speaker, I would like to congratulate my colleague from Shefford for introducing Bill C-452. The Competition Act is a very relevant topic, particularly with all of the news lately about oil. A huge quantity of oil is spilling into a natural environment and causing terrible pollution. I do not believe that such a major catastrophe has ever happened in our oceans. Those who authorize the construction of drilling platforms should make sure that they will be problem-free before construction begins.
The introduction of Bill C-452 virtually coincides with the study of Bill C-14. The Conservatives call this bill the Fairness at the Pumps Act, but that is just for show and yet another con on their part.
It is a little like the bill whose title referred to trafficking in children, but that contained nothing on the subject at all. That is how the Conservative Party operates. Calling it the Fairness at the Pumps Act is just a marketing strategy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act cover all measuring instruments, from scales used at the grocery store to weigh fruits and vegetables to those that weigh gold extracted from a mine. The acts cover all weights and measures. The Conservatives are calling this bill the Fairness at the Pumps Act because they want to look good in the public eye by positioning this as an issue that has a financial impact on Canadian and Quebec families.
The summer will soon be here. Some companies will get together to fix prices, because they know that gas use goes up in the summer. So they make the price fluctuate. Obviously, when we point a finger at the oil companies and say that there must certainly be collusion, proponents of economic theory and of the oil sector say that it is a result of the law of the market and the price of crude oil on the stock exchange, and even the price of gas on the stock exchange. I think it is a combination of faulty basic economic principles and people who speculate on the important issue of gas.
There is no doubt that we missed our chance, and that we have a problem with our dependency on oil. We must not be afraid to admit that society has failed. It is too easy to extract oil, but it is becoming a little more difficult. People are starting to think of alternatives. In Quebec, the Bloc Québécois has been saying for a number of years that we need to reduce our dependency on oil.
Right now, on the island of Montreal, the Shell refinery will perhaps force us to reduce that dependency more quickly. However, we must not forget that, as I was saying earlier, there has been a failure in terms of alternative and renewable energy.
The Competition Bureau still does not have the ability to launch its own inquiries. There must be a complaint from the private sector. Then, the Bureau can launch inquiries regarding potential collusion among oil companies, and even gas stations themselves, as we saw in the Eastern Townships two years ago. Time certainly flies.
We really have to change our attitude toward the oil industry and competition.
We need to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with oil price hikes. For some time now, the Bloc Québécois has been pressuring the government to take action to address the rising cost of petroleum products. We recommend a three-pronged approach.
First, we must bring the industry into line. That is the goal of Bill C-452, which gives teeth to the Competition Act. We should also set up a true monitoring agency for the oil sector.
Second, the industry must make a contribution. With soaring energy prices and oil company profits, the economy as a whole is suffering while the oil companies are profiting. The least we can do to limit their negative impact is to ensure that they pay their fair share of taxes. The Bloc Québécois is therefore asking that the government put an end to the juicy tax breaks enjoyed by the oil companies.
Third, we must decrease our dependency on oil. Quebec does not produce oil, and every drop of this viscous liquid consumed by Quebeckers impoverishes Quebec and also contributes to global warming.
Oil is making Quebec poorer, and we have to put an end to the bloodletting. All the oil Quebec consumes is imported. Every litre consumed means money leaving the province, thus making Quebec poorer and the oil industry richer.
In 2009, Quebec imported $9 billion worth of oil, a reduction because of the recession. In 2008, oil imports totalled $17 billion, an increase of $11 billion in the five years between 2003 and 2008. At the same time, Quebec went from a trade surplus to a trade deficit of almost $12 billion in 2009, not to mention that the increase in Alberta's oil exports made the dollar soar, which hit our manufacturing companies and aggravated our trade deficit. The increase in the price of oil alone plunged Quebec into a trade deficit.
Meanwhile, the oil companies are shamelessly taking advantage of this situation. They are posting record profits. In 1995, the entire Canadian oil and gas sector posted combined sales of $25 billion. By 2004, this figure had climbed to $84 billion.
Using and importing oil has a very significant impact on Quebec. Consequently, oil prices must be competitive and allow for alternative solutions to reduce our dependency on oil.
The best way to do that in the short term is to vote for Bill C-452, which would take fairness at the pumps beyond weights and measures and extend it to the oil industry as a whole.
Private Members' Business
June 14th, 2010 / 11:30 a.m.
Bradley Trost Saskatoon—Humboldt, SK
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the second reading debate on Bill C-452, An Act to amend the Competition Act (inquiry into industry sector).
As I understand it, the underlying objective of this bill is to address potential problems associated with investigating the petroleum sector. We are all concerned with high gas prices and as many in the House are aware, gasoline prices have long been a focus of the Competition Bureau.
High prices in and of themselves are not illegal under the Competition Act as long as long as they result from free market forces and are not the result of anti-competitive behaviour. The bureau does not hesitate to take action to protect both competition and consumers when there is concrete evidence that the high prices are the result of anti-competitive conduct.
In this regard, since 1972 the bureau's investigations in the gasoline and heating oil markets have led to thirteen trials involving charges of local price maintenance, eight of which have resulted in convictions. The bureau has also conducted six major investigations into allegations of collusion and other anti-competitive behaviour in the petroleum sector since 1990.
Those investigations did not find any evidence to suggest that periodic price increases resulted from a national conspiracy to limit competition in the supply of gasoline or from abusive behaviour by firms holding a dominant position in the market. Instead, they found that market forces such as supply and demand and rising crude oil prices caused the price spikes.
That has not stopped the bureau from remaining vigilant regarding the activities of this industry. In 2008, the bureau's investigation into certain cartel activities led to criminal charges against 13 individuals and 11 companies accused of fixing gasoline prices at the pumps in Victoriaville, Thetford Mines, Magog and Sherbrooke, Quebec. As of December 2009, ten individuals and six companies have pleaded guilty in this case, with fines totalling over $2.7 million. Of the ten individuals who pleaded guilty, six have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment totalling 54 months.
The same vigilance is evident in the bureau's work in reviewing mergers in the petroleum sector. In July 2009, the bureau announced that it had reached a consent agreement with Suncor Energy and Petro-Canada regarding their proposed merger. If this transaction had proceeded without the bureau's intervention, Suncor and Petro-Canada would have been in a position to restrict supply at the wholesale level, as well as to reduce competition in the retail sector in southern Ontario.
The consent agreement in this case required the merged company to sell terminal space and distribution capacity at its gasoline terminals in the GTA to an unrelated third party to ensure continued competition in the market for wholesale distribution of gasoline in southern Ontario and the GTA. This agreement also required the merged company to supply 98 million litres of gasoline to independent gasoline retailers each year during the 10-year period.
To address competition concerns in the retail sector, the consent agreement also required the merging parties to sell 104 corporate-owned gas stations in the GTA and southern Ontario.
Bill C-452 proposes a single amendment to the Competition Act. It would provide the Commissioner of Competition with the ability to launch formal inquiries under the Competition Act into entire sectors of the economy.
We need to be vigilant with respect to the duties that we impose on the bureau. Currently, the commissioner has the ability to conduct limited market studies as part of her role as an advocate for competitive markets. Studies into generic drug pricing and the practices of self-regulating professions are two recent examples where the commissioner examined the specific practices of various industry sectors and made recommendations to promote a more competitive marketplace.
There is evidence that these studies have been effective in improving competition in these sectors. The costs to business and the resource requirements within the bureau of such studies were minimal and did not interfere with the bureau's priority which is to enforce the act.
If a formal inquiry into an entire industry sector is required, the government may invoke its powers under the Inquiries Act. Such inquiries would include the authority to compel either oral or written evidence from witnesses and require witnesses to produce documents that are relevant to the matter that is under inquiry.
The government may also launch an inquiry under section 18 of the Canada International Trade Tribunal Act. This provision allows the tribunal to inquire into and report on matters of economic, trade or commercial interests to Canada. In the past, the tribunal has carried out studies on the competitiveness of the beef industry and the fresh and processed fruits and vegetables industries in Canada.
Given these existing avenues for inquiry and the range of issues that have been examined under the commission's current authority, I must say real doubt arises as to whether a new broader power is needed.
As we have seen, the Competition Bureau continues to aggressively enforce the Competition Act whenever violations occur in the petroleum sector. In addition, provisions in the act exist to ensure that action can be taken against abusive behaviour by dominant firms in any market. As well, the bureau has used its existing limited market studies authority to proactively promote constructive measures to improve competition in markets where structural problems exist.
Should Bill C-452 be referred to committee, I hope that there will be a thorough and detailed analysis of this proposal to determine whether it would truly advance the protection and promotion of competition for Canadian consumers and businesses.
Private Members' Business
June 14th, 2010 / 11:40 a.m.
Gord Brown Leeds—Grenville, ON
Madam Speaker, I welcome the opportunity take part in the second reading debate regarding Bill C-452, An Act to amend the Competition Act (inquiry into industry sector).
I begin today by taking a moment to make a few remarks on Canada's competitive landscape and the government's plan for improving Canada's competitiveness.
A strong and competitive economy is central to the quality of life for Canadians. A strong and competitive economy means jobs, more opportunity, choices for consumers and enhanced prosperity for all. The government continues to take actions that will allow Canadians to thrive and capitalize on economic opportunities at home and abroad, while at the same time safeguarding Canada's interests.
Productivity and growth are at the heart of our standard of living as individuals, as firms and ultimately as a country. Responsibility for a better Canada rests with every individual, as well as with government, which is responsible for implementing appropriate public policies, ensuring effective management and providing strong leadership. Canada must step up its game to become more competitive both at home and abroad.
In the global economy, the pace of competition has accelerated and our competitors are becoming more successful. As a country, we must position ourselves for more wins in this new global marketplace. As a result, the government is focusing on policies that generate future growth and opportunities to boost our economic productivity. It starts with everyone adopting a more competitive mindset.
Competition in our economy is of enormous importance to consumers and their employers alike. The government has recognized that fact by taking significant steps over the past two years to modernize Canada's competition regime and align it more closely with the competition laws of our country's major trading partners. This allows for improved collaboration with other countries and facilitates more transparent and coordinated enforcement initiatives.
The Competition Policy Review Panel report entitled “Compete to Win”, released in June 2008, and the government's actions to implement the panel's recommendations reflect this government's commitment to reach a better standard of living for all Canadians. To do so, we need greater competitive intensity, which in turn yields higher productivity and growth.
The panel spent a year reviewing Canada's competition and investment policies. In its report, the panel concluded that in order to prosper, Canada must adopt a more globally competitive mindset. It concluded that intensifying competition would build a stronger economy, better products at lower prices, more jobs and higher earnings, stronger firms and greater prosperity.
The panel called on the government to reduce or eliminate legal and regulatory barriers to vigorous competition within Canada, at the same encouraging more foreign investment, and to take a series of other measures, including a tax reform, attracting and developing talent and harmonizing our competition laws with those of the United States.
The panel recognized the importance of ensuring that consumers and legitimate businesses did not fall prey to illegal activity and, if they did, they had confidence that the law would be enforced effectively and that penalties would be tough enough to deter future illegal activity. That is why it recommended a number of important amendments to the Competition Act to ensure it promoted the most effective competitive landscape for Canada's consumers and businesses.
These reforms were implemented by the Budget Implementation Act, 2009. They are all about building a better foundation for Canadian businesses to succeed and fostering increased confidence in the marketplace among Canadians consumers and all those carrying on business or considering carrying on business in Canada.
We toughened our approach to clearly anti-competitive acts, made changes to ensure that the law would not chill legitimate business activity and simplified the law in many respects. The reforms introduced tougher penalties for price fixing and other hardcore conspiracies, while narrowing this provision to ensure it did not discourage potentially positive strategic alliances.
To summarize, the Competition Act now provides more certainty to businesses and supports the type of honest competition that benefits all Canadians. We now have robust laws that will protect and promote competitive markets in Canada so Canadian employers thrive and consumers can have confidence in the marketplace.
As we made clear in the Speech from the Throne, this government's goal, as we move forward in our recovery, is to ensure that all Canadians benefit from our agenda of providing more jobs and growth. Over the last year, our government has taken decisive steps to protect incomes, create jobs, ease credit markets and help workers and communities get back on their feet. Moving forward, our strategy for the economy is to create the conditions for continued success in the industries that are the foundation for Canada's prosperity.
Our government is committed to identifying and removing unnecessary job-killing regulation and barriers to growth. This government stands for free and open markets. Open and competitive markets are the best way to promote new, dynamic and innovative products and ideas. Businesses do not need unnecessary government oversight or new regulations to dictate how they should operate.
It is in this context that I wish to remind the hon. member of the significant new powers this government has provided the Commissioner of Competition in order to investigate and deter the types of activities that lie at the heart of the bill. These tools will be far more effective than the measures provided and proposed in Bill C-452.
Fairness at the Pumps Act
May 12th, 2010 / 3:45 p.m.
Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB
Mr. Speaker, the member has nailed the real problem 100%. Over many years, the provinces have done about 125 studies on price fixing, trying to nail those gas companies, those retailers. In fact, Bill C-452, as proposed by the Bloc, comes up this very day. The bill would amend the Competition Act to authorize the commissioner to conduct inquiries into the entire sector.
We have always said that the bill has some pluses to it. The increased penalties are a positive. However, the idea that giving an offset to the private sector and farming out the inspections is the wrong way to go. If I were a retailer, I would rather have the government doing the inspection on a random basis than pay some private entrepreneur who may charge me double or triple what he or she should in this situation.
The Conservatives never come up with consumer protection unless there is an offset to private business, and that is what this is.
Fairness at the Pumps Act
May 12th, 2010 / 3:45 p.m.
Meili Faille Vaudreuil-Soulanges, QC
I, too, am worried that the oil industry has been asked to police itself. Oil companies are being asked to evaluate how well they respect the laws. That is incredible. They are both judge and judged. The Bloc Québécois has the solution and it is Bill C-452, which will be debated a little later today.
Bill C-14 is also of direct interest to me. I often travel back and forth between Ottawa and my riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges. Obviously, I have to take my car. Every time I stop to fill it up at a gas station, I cannot help but wonder why prices vary so much from region to region. In the same city or an area of a few kilometres, the prices may be the same or they may differ, oddly enough, by a number of cents a litre.
I often wonder if the prices at the pump are accurate. Those are a few reasons why I am interested in today's debate. I think that Bill C-14 is a good start, and because of that, I agree with it in principle. It would amend the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act. However, the bill does not directly address collusion problems amongst oil companies, nor does it effectively prevent sudden gas price increases. I still believe that we need to continue our efforts in this area and encourage the members to pass Bill C-452.
In order to better understand the Bloc Québécois' position, it is important to understand what this bill is proposing. As its title indicates, the bill would make two amendments to two different acts. It would amend the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act by providing for higher maximum fines for offences, as well as punishing repeat offenders. It would also amend the Weights and Measures Act to require that retailers cause any device that they use in trade or have in their possession to be examined within a prescribed period. Non-compliance could result in penalties.
Bill C-14 introduces fines for violations of the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act. An inspector who noticed a violation would be able to impose a penalty on the offender.
In addition, a person who wanted to contest a fine would have to prove that he had exercised due diligence to prevent the commission of the violation.
Another interesting point is that the penalties can be cumulative. A violation that continues for more than one day is considered a separate violation for every day during which it continues. This measure is more stringent, because it requires offenders to act quickly and make the necessary changes to comply with the act.
Still in the section on amendments to the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act, Bill C-14 would allow the Minister of Industry to make public the names and address of persons who had violated the act. The advantage of releasing this sort of information is that people could avoid offending retailers.
We noted that a violation under the act would not constitute a Criminal Code offence, which means that an individual found guilty under Bill C-14 would not have a criminal record. This should be examined in more detail in committee.
Bill C-14 also amends the Weights and Measures Act. One of these amendments would allow inspectors to enter a retailer's premises. A government-appointed inspector who had reasonable grounds to believe that a violation had been committed could examine and seize any document that could prove that there was a violation. Under this provision, the inspector could even limit access to the premises and require that the retailer stop operating faulty equipment.
Bill C-14 provides for large increases in the penalties under the Weights and Measures Act. A person found guilty under the act would not be fined $1,000, as now, but up to $10,000, in addition to being liable to imprisonment of not more than six months for a first offence.
In the case of a first offence prosecuted by indictment, the fine is increased to $25,000 and can be accompanied by a maximum prison sentence of two years. In the case of a re-offence, the bill increases the maximum fine to $20,000 and if a repeat offender is tried for another conviction on indictment, the fine can go up to $50,000 with a maximum prison sentence of two years.
I am very anxious to hear the minister's arguments on this once public servants are invited to appear before the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology to justify these sentences and elaborate on the problems at the pumps.
Much like the amendments to the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act, the proposed changes to the Weights and Measures Act will allow for cumulative sentences to be imposed for each of the days the offender is found to be in violation. The bill introduces stricter penalties and allows for cumulative sentences. Repeat offenders will be punished. That is basically what the bill aims to do.
The Bloc Québécois has several concerns. When the Conservative government prorogued Parliament in December 2009, the Bloc Québécois began a pre-budget tour. I met with many citizens and various associations from Vaudreuil-Soulanges to find out what they wanted and what they expected from the budget. These meetings confirmed that the public's main concerns are the environment and the economy. The Bloc Québécois' positions are explained in the document Saisir l'occasion pour le Québec.
As I said in my speech, the Bloc Québécois supports Bill C-14 in principle, but Bill C-452 is also a direct response to the problems related to competition. My colleagues, the hon. members for Shefford and Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, will discuss that a little later today.
The Bloc Québécois' Bill C-452 addresses the flaws in Bill C-14. At the risk of repeating myself, we have some concerns about Bill C-14, but since we are a responsible serious party, we are suggesting solutions.
In response to Bill C-14 and the shortcomings of the measures put in place by the January 2009 budget implementation bill, we have introduced Bill C-452, which would give real powers to the Competition Bureau. The Bureau could act on its own and initiate inquiries, without waiting for permission from the minister or for a complaint to be filed. If the Bureau had reasonable doubts, it could investigate.
Bill C-452 would strengthen the Competition Bureau and would better protect the public against the actions of some businesses, which might take advantage of their position to unfairly fleece and gouge consumers.
We have other possible solutions. My Bloc Québécois colleagues and I strongly believe that we must adopt a comprehensive strategy to combat the rising cost of petroleum products. There are three criteria needed to apply this comprehensive strategy.
The first criterion to make our comprehensive strategy a success is that we must continue to support initiatives that help us decrease our dependence on oil. The rising cost of oil is making Quebec poorer. Increased prices affect the economy in many other ways. Increased exports of Alberta oil tend to increase the value of the Canadian dollar. Our manufacturing companies are the ones who suffer.
The Bloc Québécois has three ideas to decrease our dependence on oil, and my colleagues can read about them in detail on the Bloc Québécois site, because the document is public.
We must increase the budget of the ecoEnergy for renewable heat program, and expand its scope to solar thermal power, to include forest biomass.
We need a program to support the use of forestry byproducts in energy and ethanol production. We have to stimulate new product research and development. We can do this by offering refundable tax credits for research and development so that companies can benefit even if they are at the development stage and are not yet making a profit.
There are many other suggestions and ways to reduce our dependence on oil. We just have to be bold and focus on the importance of acting now to help the environment. We need to think about what consumers, what our fellow citizens, what Quebeckers are really paying for when they use oil products.
Bill C-452 meets one of those criteria. Its goal is to discipline the oil industry. As parliamentarians, we have to show people that we are ready to protect their interests.
I encourage members to discipline the industry by voting for Bill C-452 because it gives more powers to the Competition Bureau. The government should commit to setting up a petroleum monitoring agency. It is time for oil companies to respect people. They have to be accountable.
The final criterion is to make the oil industry contribute. The price of oil is going up, which results in higher prices for transportation and many consumer goods. Because of this, the oil industry is raking in huge profits. The very least these companies can do is pay their fair share of taxes.
As part of our comprehensive strategy to address the rising cost of oil products, we want the government to eliminate tax breaks. In 2003, the government cut oil companies' taxes from 28% to 21%. In 2007, the Conservative government proposed another tax cut, and according to the 2007 economic update, oil companies will be taxed 15% in 2012. Why should such a rich sector of the economy benefit from so many tax breaks?
The oil industry needs to be part of the solution. The $3.6 billion pocketed by oil companies is not available to the public. That money could be reinvested in society.
Our comprehensive strategy to address rising oil costs is reasonable and feasible. There are only three ways to change the way we deal with oil. We have to reduce our dependence on oil, make the oil industry pay its share by eliminating tax breaks, and discipline the oil industry with Bill C-452.
I will give the House a short overview. In May 2003, before the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, the commissioner of competition pointed out that the Competition Bureau did not have the authority to initiate an inquiry.
Since 2003, subsequent governments have not taken action. The government never takes action when the price of gas fluctuates. It believes its inertia is justified by the fact that the Competition Bureau is not able to prove that there are agreements among oil companies to fix the price of gas.
Fairness at the Pumps Act
May 12th, 2010 / 4:05 p.m.
Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB
Mr. Speaker, I really do think that the Bloc's Bill C-452, sponsored by the member for Shefford, has a lot of potential. I have been following this issue for probably 20 years now and there have been 125 studies done in this country. Piles of studies and thousands of dollars have all come up with the same conclusion: the authorities cannot track down the price fixing in the gasoline industry because of the Competition Act.
This bill is going to amend the Competition Act to authorize the Commissioner of Competition to inquire into the entire industry sector. I think that this Parliament owes it to debate this Bloc bill later on today and refer it to committee. I think we are going to have some real potential here for some real change.
Dealing with Bill C-14 itself, I do want to ask questions of government members, but for the last two days I have not seen one yet. I do want to talk about the whole area of—