House of Commons Hansard #145 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was energy.

Topics

Presence in Gallery
Oral Questions

3 p.m.

The Speaker

I would also like to draw to the attention of hon. members the presence in the gallery of the Honourable David Krutko, Minister Responsible for the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation and Northwest Territories Power Corporation.

Presence in Gallery
Oral Questions

3 p.m.

Some hon. members

Hear, hear!

The House resumed consideration of the motion that Bill C-66, An Act to authorize payments to provide assistance in relation to energy costs, housing energy consumption and public transit infrastructure, and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
Government Orders

3:05 p.m.

The Speaker

Before question period, the hon. member for Ottawa West--Nepean had 16 minutes left in the time allotted for her remarks.

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
Government Orders

3:05 p.m.

Liberal

Marlene Catterall Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Mr. Speaker, as we all know, a few short months ago Canadians were hit with huge, unexplainable and what seemed to be frivolous increases in the price of gasoline at the pumps, and immediately began demanding action on the part of the government to assist with those unexpected costs. There were concerns about the impacts on business and on the price of goods generally in the market as cost of transportation increased.

I want to comment briefly on the concerns and the proposals constituents made to me and to, I am sure, other members of Parliament. They were concerned about the sudden windfall to the government of increased taxes as a result of the rising gas prices. In fact, the increased revenues to the government come only from the GST, so if the price of a litre of gasoline goes up by 20¢ to 25¢ as it did, the increased revenue is relatively minimal compared to other taxes on gasoline.

Those increased revenues are offset by additional costs to the government. First, as consumers shift their expenditures for gasoline from other goods and services, other areas of GST drop. Second, as the price of goods go up, then other benefits that the government pays out to Canadians such as old age security increase. The higher revenue from the sale of gas is in fact the excise tax which remains constant at 10¢ a litre regardless of the price and for the province of Ontario, it is close to 15¢ a litre.

The government instead turned its attention to helping Canadians who would face increased heating costs as the winter approached. Quite honestly, people have a little more control over their cost of transportation. They can choose to use the bus, to car pool, and to walk shorter distances, but we have very little control as Canadians over the amount of energy we need to heat our homes through a cold Canadian winter.

The government chose first, to direct help to those most in need with the costs of heating their homes this winter; and second, to help Canadians to reduce on a permanent basis their energy consumption through such things as improvements to their homes and help municipalities reduce the demand for fossil fuels by improving public transit, for example.

This bill and the government's actions respond to the demands from Canadians for greater accountability about how gas prices are set. This was perhaps best exemplified by someone who works at a gas station who, as the prices suddenly jumped 10¢ to 20¢ a litre, said he did not know he was charging more for gas. It was the same gas that was bought before Katrina hit and the price of it did not change, so he did not know why customers were being charged more. Greater accountability with greater powers of enforcement and review from the Competition Bureau are also an important part of the government's measures.

Let me deal with some of the specifics of how we propose to help modest income Canadians. Some 3.1 million households will benefit from payments under the energy cost benefit. To be clear, families who qualify for the national child benefit supplement will be eligible to receive $250. That is not a lot, but it is a fairly significant way of contributing to increased heating costs this winter, which may or may not materialize given the current prices of oil and gas.

A single senior entitled to receive the guaranteed income supplement will get $125. A senior couple, where both spouses are entitled to receive the guaranteed income supplement or where only one is entitled to receive it depending on the household income, will get $250. This will certainly help families on low incomes with children and seniors on low income under existing programs to pay the extra costs of heating their homes this winter.

We should all be pleased for a number of reasons with the other initiatives, which are to help Canadians reduce their dependency on fossil fuels and therefore be less vulnerable to sudden shifts and increases in prices.

A number of measures are in place to help Canadians of modest income, but not just Canadians of modest income, to make their homes more energy efficient and therefore reduce their costs of heating and other uses of energy. For instance, for modest income households we will provide between $3,500 and $5,000 to defray the cost of items such as draft proofing, heating system upgrades and replacing windows. This is under the new EnerGuide for low income households.

Multiple unit buildings and rooming houses will also be eligible for financial assistance and cost savings will average about 30% per household. That is an ongoing year after year reduction in the cost of heating.

We are also providing incentives to acquire the most energy efficient furnaces for homes and providing support to families who heat with electricity, but we are going beyond individual homes. We are also helping public institutions such as schools, hospitals, and municipalities to make the same kind of energy retrofits and cut their costs, and therefore cut the burden on the taxpayer.

What is important about these measures is that not only will they help individuals, families, and the institutions involved, but they will also help meet our commitments to reduce the impact energy use has on our atmosphere. I do not think there is much doubt in the House that we have to act decisively to reduce climate change and to reverse the greenhouse gas effect, which is warming the atmosphere, warming our oceans, causing climatic turbulence, and creating significant economic as well as social risks in the long run. These measures, while they have been brought in to respond to a particular crisis, are helping us meet our long term environmental goals with respect to the atmosphere.

As part of our new partnership with cities, we are accelerating the release of funds to upgrade and improve public transit. I am particularly pleased that in my own community in Ottawa we have made a substantial investment of $600 million toward public transit in cooperation with the province and the City of Ottawa.

As we do this in communities throughout Canada, we are meeting our environmental objectives. We are making it easier for Canadians to choose to use public transit instead of relying on gas for their automobiles and other vehicles.

Let me say a few words about what we are doing in terms of market transparency and accountability. Canadians are deeply concerned about the fact that prices can jump overnight. In the few weeks immediately following Katrina, gas prices went up by approximately 25%.

There is no explanation for that. My constituents see that as clear and blatant profiteering by the oil companies. Perhaps some would say in defence of the oil companies that it is just insurance in case the price goes up. The simple fact is a lot more people paid a lot more for gas than they needed to. Fortunately the oil companies seem to have come to their senses and I hope it is in part because consumers are refusing to buy gas at those higher prices.

Nonetheless, I do not think we are out of the woods yet in terms of the impact on people and their home heating costs this winter. No one needs to be reminded how cold it can get in Canada just about anywhere.

I should point out that people also suggested that we limit the price companies can charge. Constitutionally only the provinces have the right to put a price on a commodity like gas or oil. We heard earlier today that Nova Scotia in fact does that. Companies have to justify an increase in the price of fuel.

The federal government does not have that authority countrywide, so we have chosen other ways to assist people. Where we do have some authority is with the Competition Bureau, and the ability to oversee and to ensure as far as possible that there is no collusion around price fixing.

The bill strengthens the Competition Act to deter anti-competitive practices, gives the Competition Bureau more powers for enforcement, and increases fines for those convicted of price fixing significantly to $25 million from $10 million.

The problem is that after a number of reviews by the Competition Bureau, it has not been able to find evidence of collusion or price fixing. Therefore we will have to wait and see I am afraid as to whether the strengthening of the act in fact will give the Competition Bureau more latitude and more possibility of finding that in fact there is some collusion that is contrary to the public interest.

Market transparency and accountability is also important. As Canadians know more, they can make their own judgments on what is being done at the gas pumps and whether the price of fuel coming into their home during the winter is fair and reasonable based on the actual cost to the companies of the product they are selling.

We are providing much better information to Canadians. What good does that do? I think if Canadians have good information, they can use the power of their purse to bring pressure on companies that they think are being unfair. I am a great believer in the power of the consumer where people refuse to take out their wallets and pay for a product if they think they are being unfairly charged for it.

There have been a number of consumer actions that I can remember throughout my adult life that were extremely effective because consumers said “No more”. They would not pay what was being asked for by a product.

To sum up, we have been concerned. The price of gas is down again at the pumps, so I suppose the political pressure is off. Nonetheless, we have no idea what the situation will be as Canadians start paying for fuel to heat their homes this winter.

We are focusing our efforts to: help low income families with children; help seniors with the cost of heating their homes; invest in those energy saving measures for families and individuals in their own homes that will help reduce their long term dependency on fossil fuels; help our public institutions, hospitals, schools, and municipalities to reduce their longer term cost to the benefit frankly of all taxpayers because we all know who pays the bills of those institutions; and to work with the municipalities to speed up public transit.

Leading up to the development of this program, one of the things I urged was for the province to look at ways to cooperate and support the kind of measures being taken by the federal government. One area in particular concerns the thousands of public housing units in my community that were built in the 1960s and early 1970s. In those days these units certainly were not built using the best environmental standards in terms of energy conservation.

I urge the province of Ontario, the municipalities and other provinces where this situation prevails to look at whether we should not be upgrading the energy efficiency of publicly owned housing.

I am proud of what we are doing. I suppose sometimes it is never enough but it certainly is important to the families who would be helped.

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
Government Orders

3:20 p.m.

Conservative

Cheryl Gallant Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke, ON

Mr. Speaker, the member mentioned that the people receiving the national child benefit supplement would receive this rebate. As finance minister, the Prime Minister oversaw a deal in 1997 that resulted in a clawback of the national child supplement from the pockets of our neediest children.

In 1997, to assist Canadian families with children, the baby bonus was replaced with the national child benefit supplement and it was introduced as a tax credit. It included a benefit and a supplement, the national child benefit supplement, and the program was designed to reduce poverty among low income families.

Negotiations between the federal and provincial governments around the implementation of that tax benefit resulted in some of the provinces, Ontario included, deducting this tax benefit from the amounts received by the families on social assistance. That is what is consistently referred to as the NCBS clawback.

In the province of Ontario, families who are entitled to receive the national child benefit and who are receiving social benefits are subject to the clawback. What this means is social assistance recipients have the amount of the national child benefit supplement they are entitled to receive deducted from their social assistance cheques.

In the absence of any special agreement, the $250 the government is talking about, which is intended for families with children on welfare, becomes a financial windfall for the Government of Ontario. So much for the commitment to assist low income families with children.

The Prime Minister was the most senior minister in the Chrétien regime and in Quebec. No decisions involving money were made without the present Prime Minister knowing because the finance minister sees all the figures. Why is the Prime Minister allowing Ontario Liberals to pocket that tax benefit in the supposed special payment that it is going to send to them, instead of having it go to the neediest children in Ontario? Is this not just another way for Liberals to funnel money to other Liberals?

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
Government Orders

3:25 p.m.

Liberal

Marlene Catterall Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am happy the member asked the question. I do not think she knows what a big door she offered me to walk through. In fact, it was under a Conservative government that our government negotiated an agreement on the national child benefit.

I am sure she is aware that the Constitution tells us that social services, such as assistance to families with children, is the responsibility of the provinces. The only way the federal government can have any role in assisting families with children is through an agreement with the provincial governments.

It was a Conservative government, a Mike Harris government, and, may I say from the point of view of Ottawa West—Nepean, a Conservative government with John Baird as the minister of community and social services that would only allow us to help families with children if they were allowed to claw it back from families on public assistance.

How did things change when a Liberal government was elected in Toronto? One of the first things Premier Dalton McGuinty did was to say that Ontario could not afford to cancel the whole clawback right now but that it would not claw back the increase that the federal government was giving to those families. That certainly was a step in the right direction out of the pit that the Tories put us into when the national child benefit was brought in.

May I also say that the Conservatives, while they were stealing money out of the pockets of children and their parents, were also giving tax breaks to their rich friends.

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
Government Orders

3:25 p.m.

NDP

Brian Masse Windsor West, ON

Mr. Speaker, this is an interesting debate because the fact is that it is the current Prime Minister who actually holds the record for giving the most corporate tax cuts to the wealthiest in Canada. The competition between the Harris regime and the current Prime Minister to see how many of their friends they can reward is something Canadians are sick and tired of.

I have a question for the hon. member concerning a specific point she made in her debate today relating to the fact that consumers could somehow rebel and could actually force the oil and gas companies to follow certain types of procedures. That is not very realistic because people need to take their kids to school and taxi drivers and truck drivers need to work. Some people in rural pockets of the country who cannot access mass transit are susceptible to the whole industry in itself.

What is interesting to note from the testimony we heard in the industry committee is that prior to hurricanes Katrina and Rita the industry experts classified their profits from this as spectacular. The government's bill does nothing about that situation and neither does the Competition Act nor the amendments. Anti-competitive behaviour is one thing but profiteering ostensibly is another, and it is not taken care of in the act. In fact, big oil companies reaped almost $38 billion in profits in the first half of 2005 alone, before the hurricanes are calculated in.

During our discussion at the industry committee, the Minister of Industry talked about the fact that we do have some legislative changes coming on Bill C-19. When I asked him about those changes and how the industry would react to them he said, “We didn't want it to be seen by industry to be too arbitrary and punitive”. That was his response to the punish mechanism that is now being put in place.

If the Minister of Industry is creating a system that is not punitive and is not going to be seen as punitive to big oil companies, could the hon. member tell us what motivation these companies would have to actually amend their practices in this field?

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
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3:30 p.m.

Liberal

Marlene Catterall Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Mr. Speaker, first, I accept fully what the member just said. Many people, because of rural or occupational requirements, are dependent on a one person car to carry out their normal activities of life. However there are many more who do have options about how much, how often, how far, how well they use their automobile or their other vehicle. I want to say to those people that if they want to send a message to the gas companies, they have the power of their wallet to do it. It takes time and it takes discipline but it is worth doing.

Frankly, one of the things I would like to see in the bill is an incentive for people to buy more energy efficient vehicles. The market impact is already leading in that direction because I have been told that the sales of SUVs in this city are down by about 50% in the last few months. That is a positive thing and that is the way the consumers are getting their message across, which is that if they are going to be overcharged for a produce then they will find ways to use less of that product.

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member does have it right. There is very little that we can do at the government tax level to deal with the significant increases in commodity prices of all forms of energy, but specifically with regard to gasoline. It means that we do have to be more energy efficient and energy wise, which is why, in my view, the retrofit and public transit elements of Bill C-66 are extremely important.

I am wondering if the member is aware of the NRCan energy audit rebate that is available to Canadians to get an energy audit of their home for half the price. Half is subsidized by the government. The rebate is there to help Canadians find out just exactly how they can improve the energy efficiency of their home and some other important energy conservation measures.

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

Marlene Catterall Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have provided information to my constituents on that on numerous occasions. One of the problems here in Ottawa is that the program is so popular that there is a huge waiting time for those energy audits. However, yes, the government will help people get an energy audit and it will pay half the cost so they will know precisely what improvements to their homes will result in the greatest energy savings.

However the greatest thing that we are doing in the bill is creating a program for low income households so that they can make similar improvements with assistance from the government that they probably would not be able to afford to make themselves.

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Gurmant Grewal Newton—North Delta, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise on behalf of the constituents of Newton--North Delta to participate in the second reading debate on Bill C-66, an act to authorize payments to provide assistance in relation to energy costs, housing energy consumption and public transit infrastructure, and to make consequential amendments to certain acts.

I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Nanaimo—Alberni.

I would like to highlight that the bill would allow the government to make a one-time energy cost benefit payment of $250 to families receiving the national child benefit supplement and $125 to recipients of the guaranteed income supplement. It also would allow the government to spend $838 million on measures to reduce housing energy consumption and it would remove the requirement that $800 million for public transit infrastructure, set out in the NDP budget bill, be contingent on the size of the surplus. The bill calls for the payments to be made in January 2006.

To assist with the background, this summer crude oil prices soared to record highs. For consumers, the effects were primarily felt at the pumps. Gasoline broke the dollar barrier earlier in the summer and kept on going up, reaching a new peak on Labour Day weekend of up to $1.40 per litre.

While both crude oil and gasoline prices have come down in recent weeks, they remain at near historic highs and this winter promises to be the most expensive ever for heating one's home.

Since June, natural gas prices across North America rose more than 30%. In British Columbia, natural gas is the dominant energy used for home heating, being used by over 800,000 households in the province. Twice in the last four months the B.C. Utilities Commission has approved a request by Terasen Gas for a natural gas commodity rate increase. In June, the commission approved a 5.6% increase. This was followed last month by a 13.3% increase.

As a result of those increases, my constituents can expect to see their annual heating bills jump by nearly $300 to over $1,500. In the last two years, the price to heat a lower mainland home with natural gas has increased by over $500 annually. If that was not bad enough, it is almost guaranteed that prices will go up again before spring.

An American government report issued earlier this month estimates that heating bills for all fuel types will cost Americans about one-third more this winter. The same is true in Canada.

The Energy Information Administration sees the cost of heat by natural gas rising 47% and heating oil 32%. The Canadian Gas Association is predicting the price of natural gas will increase from 20% to 50% this winter. This is bad news for British Columbians and for the 50% of Canadian homeowners who heat with homes with gas.

Energy prices have never been so high or increased so quickly. For some low income families, the sharp jumps could mean choosing whether to eat or keep warm.

Even more affluent Canadians will be hard hit by soaring heating costs. With today's high cost of living, particularly in urban areas like British Columbia's lower mainland, many families earning good salaries still live from paycheque to paycheque. An extra $100 a month for home heating, combined with higher gas prices and rising interest rates, could be enough to cause financial hardship or even possibly bankruptcy in some cases.

The government's rebate plan would leave thousands of low income British Columbians out in the cold. According to its own numbers, the government scheme will aid less than 10% of Canadians. Even the poor will only receive assistance if they already collect child or elderly benefits. Bill C-66 does nothing for the majority of students, many of whom live in dirty, old apartments. Students are one of the main low income groups in this country but the Liberals have forgotten about them.

As well, Canadians with disabilities who claim disability benefits will receive no help with their heating bills. Similarly, farmers and over 200,000 low income seniors who do not file for the GIS will not receive help. Bill C-66 offers no assistance to poor Canadians who are childless. Statistics Canada indicates there are nearly two million individuals under 65 who fall below the low income threshold and who have no children. These individuals will receive nothing from the government.

Now, talking about current affairs, we know that almost $45 million is missing or is unaccounted for from the sponsorship program. The people I mentioned, the seniors, farmers, people on fixed incomes or low income and students would have been better off if the government had some accountability in place. It has been confirmed that on the Liberal side there is a culture of entitlement, corruption, greed, carelessness and mismanagement. We have been saying that all along for so many years and today it has been confirmed by Justice Gomery. These are the facts. These are not only accusations.

The sponsorship program was directed politically and there have been no political consequences. Only the bureaucrats have been made the scapegoats. That program was set up by the Liberals. They ran the program. They used the program and abused the program. The kickbacks have been going to the Liberal Party for the benefit of the Liberal Party. It is important--

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
Government Orders

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, on a point of order, with respect, we are debating the energy bill and I believe the member should address the bill on a matter of relevance.

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
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3:40 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

I was listening carefully. The hon. member for Newton—North Delta was relating different types of government spending and what should be better spent one way or another. I think we will have to just listen to the debate and see what kind of conclusion he comes to.

Energy Costs Assistance Measures Act
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November 1st, 2005 / 3:40 p.m.

Conservative

Gurmant Grewal Newton—North Delta, BC

Mr. Speaker, I care about the students, the farmers, the people on low incomes and the people on a fixed income who did not get enough money to pay for the rising heating fuel and gasoline prices.

That is why I was referring to the government wasting money. Today's example, which is listed in the Gomery report, is about the sponsorship program. There have been many boondoggles, mismanagement and wrongdoing on the Liberal side and it continues again and again.

I am quite sure that those farmers, those people on a fixed income and low incomes and people without children will hold the government critically and democratically accountable when the time comes for them to vote, despite the fact that the government is thinking that some sort of smaller cheque will go to them before the election.

According to the finance department, the government is limiting the rebate program to the people I mentioned. Instead of providing assistance to Canadians who need help, that heartless government continues to mismanage this file as well. The rebate program is more about politics than about helping people who are struggling to heat their homes.

The government knows that the heating prices are skyrocketing. With an election on the horizon, it wants to give the appearance of helping people out, but Canadians cannot be fooled. Having cheques arrive in the mail just prior to an election is a side benefit the government is anticipating, but it will not come true.

Even if a person pays nothing for heat, that person still might get a cheque. That mismanaged boondoggle by the government happened during the 2003 election.

An option to the Liberal plan would be to remove the GST from home heating fuel. This is a more fair and straightforward way of dealing with the spiralling home heating costs. I made this proposal four years ago in March 2001 when I introduced Motion No. 289 which read:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should stop charging the GST on energy costs for residential properties.

This would be an effective way to provide sensible price relief to all families, not to a selected group. It would also deliver real help at the point of purchase and would do so without red tape, confusion or discrimination.

To conclude, most people in B.C. agree that something needs to be done to address the rising costs of home heating this winter. However, everyone I talk to has the same opinion of the federal plan, that it is inadequate.

The Liberal scheme leaves out many needy people who will be struggling most of the time to cope with high heating costs. The Conservative Party will still be grudgingly supporting the bill. Low income Canadians need immediate assistance and they cannot afford to wait until the government comes up with a fair solution.