House of Commons Hansard #46 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was tax.

Topics

Questions on the Order Paper
Routine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

The House resumed from May 12 consideration of the motion that Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Fairness at the Pumps Act
Government Orders

10:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Andrew Scheer

The hon. member for Nanaimo—Cowichan has four minutes left to conclude her remarks.

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10:10 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, in the brief time I have left there are a couple of points that I want to bring to the attention of the House.

Bill C-14 is entitled fairness at the pumps act. I just want to briefly talk about what fairness means. It means conformity with rules or standards, ability to make judgments free from discrimination or dishonesty, and the attitude of being just to all. Fairness could be that everyone gets the same, but maybe that should be that everyone gets what they actually need and I think that is an important point.

Fairness at the pumps is part of the title of this bill.

New Democrats have been calling for a number of measures for consumer protection over a number of years. I alluded yesterday to the fact that the member for Windsor West since 2008 and earlier has been calling for some fairness for consumers when it comes to overall gas price regulations and fairness at the pumps.

New Democrats have a much broader agenda when we are talking about consumer fairness and consumer protection. We have been calling for a number of initiatives. This measure that is before the House is a step but it is not adequate. We have been calling for fairness for consumers with regard to ATM fees, interest rates, fees charged by fringe banks, and for air passengers.

Many members of the House have spent all kinds of time in various delays at airports. I know the member for Elmwood—Transcona has been working hard on fairness for airline passengers.

The member for Sudbury has worked on capping the interest rates on credit cards to a maximum of five percentage points over prime by amending the Bank Act.

We have called for an ombudsperson when it comes to gas prices. We have asked for funding for citizen oversight committees to monitor fees, rates and regulatory decisions as part of the formal regulatory and rate setting process for banks, telephone companies and cable corporations.

We have been asking for an investigation and recall of unsafe and toxic consumer products including toys, groceries and pet foods. We have asked for increased testing and inspection of imported products and a requirement that federally-regulated agencies provide better customer service as well as better complaint mechanisms and measurable high quality customer support.

There is also the leaky condo crisis in my own province of British Columbia. In my riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan the leaky condo crisis is an ongoing crisis for many families. We would like to see the responsibilities of federal agencies, as promised by the Conservatives, to hold an inquiry into the roles and responsibilities and tax exemptions for repair and restoration. We would also like to see mandatory labelling of farm fish.

Finally, we would like to see all consumer related federal agencies under one roof, by naming a minister specifically responsible for consumer affairs. Canadians deserve a minister devoted to protecting their interests. In terms of gas pricing at the pumps, that would make a lot of sense.

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10:10 a.m.

NDP

Chris Charlton Hamilton Mountain, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is a great pleasure to listen to my colleague from Nanaimo--Cowichan both yesterday in the early evening and today again about something that is a hugely important consumer protection issue.

I have been hearing about it from my constituents not just this year but frankly since I was first elected. It seems to me that every long weekend, every time the weather turns nice, we see the price at the pumps going up.

I recognize that the bill that is before us today only deals with a small part of that. It deals specifically with the actual pumps and the recalibration of the pumps, but I think there is a much larger issue.

As far as I am concerned, the bill leaves the profiteering oil companies largely untouched. It goes after the small business retailers with enforced inspections, with this new mammoth bureaucracy, when really what people want is to stop the gouging at the pumps.

I wonder whether my hon. colleague has any thoughts at all about what the bill might do to some of the smaller businesses that actually operate family-run gas stations.

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10:15 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member for Hamilton Mountain is right. We are coming up to a long weekend and I expect that each and every one of us will go back to our home communities and surprisingly find that gas prices have gone up 5¢ to 10¢ a litre. It is a tradition on long weekends in Canada. Sadly, it is a tradition that affects consumers. Yesterday in my speech I mentioned that low income Canadians are even harder hit by this kind of pricing. The member for Windsor West has long called for oversight on how prices at the gas pumps are arrived at.

I want to come back for a moment to why this piece of legislation was introduced. The member for Hamilton Mountain pointed out that it does not go nearly far enough and adversely impacts on small retailers. I want to refer to the Ottawa Citizen article in 2008 which talked about the report that eventually led to this piece of legislation. It said:

But using the most conservative figures, pumps that fell outside the tolerance zone would have shortchanged consumers by at least $17 million annually if projected across the entire industry. At the same time, however, fast pumps would give out $8 million in free gas. On the small percentage of pumps outside the tolerance zone, consumers come out about $9 million behind.

It went on to say:

But if pumps that passed inspection also skewed against the consumer by about the same rate within the tolerance zone, Canadian drivers would be out of pocket even more.

With about 40 billion litres of gas sold in Canada, the 0.5% variation within the legal tolerance represents a potential swing of $240 million in either direction. If the variations in gas flowing from these pumps evened out, it would have no effect on consumers. But even a small shift could represent millions of dollars.

That article points out that not only are consumers impacted by the variations in the pumps, but the small retailers are as well. Their margins are pretty tight. If they are giving out free gas, they cannot afford that. The much broader issues around regulation of gas prices and effective oversight into pump regulation require attention.

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10:15 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, NL

Mr. Speaker, this bill gives the great appearance of what it intends to do which is to create fairness for consumers at the pumps and at the same time make it easier for retailers, but therein lies the problem with the bill.

For retailers the Conservatives have thrown much of the enforcement into the realm of the private market. It is similar to when people wanted to receive rebates for doing work on their homes so that heat would not escape. The problem was the consumers had to pay for the inspection. It was that upfront cost. In this case what bothers me is throwing it to the private market to allow inspectors to come in and do the inspections. Unfortunately, that could cause problems for smaller retailers especially in my riding and perhaps in the member's riding as well. I would like her to comment on that.

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10:15 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, my riding includes a number of small towns and small retailers. We also have a very proud co-operative movement. There are a number of co-operative gas bars that service Nanaimo—Cowichan and other parts of Vancouver Island. These small retailers cannot afford to have downloading on the prices. The solution is to increase the number of government inspectors that are available--

Fairness at the Pumps Act
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10:15 a.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Random inspections.

Fairness at the Pumps Act
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10:15 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

The member for Elmwood—Transcona is pointing out that random inspections are the way to deal with it. The government inspectors do a very good job, but they need the resources to do that job effectively. More inspectors are needed. Random inspections would certainly help to identify where there are problems.

Fairness at the Pumps Act
Government Orders

10:15 a.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I have never seen Conservative consumer legislation, ever, that does not have an offset for private business.

In this case, the government wants to turn a random inspection system done by government inspectors which the industry will trust over to the government's private sector friends who can charge an arm and a leg for the inspections. They will be making appointments, I presume, so the retailer will know when the inspector is showing up. I cannot think of a worst case scenario than what the government is proposing.

We had a very similar situation in Manitoba a number of years ago with automobile inspections. The inspections were done on a random basis over the course of several governments over many years. The public was satisfied with that system. Cars were called in on a random basis once or twice over a 10-year period and the required repairs were done. The Filmon Conservative government turned the system over to the private garages, which have a conflict of interest. Not only are they certifying the vehicles as safe, but they are also doing repairs. There is an incentive for them to drive up the repairs. When this system was brought in under the Filmon Conservative government, the cost of low-end cars doubled overnight.

The other thing is that an inspection is not done unless the car is being sold. If someone drove a car for 15 years, it would never be inspected no matter how many things need to be done to it. An inspection is only done when there is a change in ownership and the garage hits the owner up for maybe hundreds of dollars' worth of repairs.

This is the type of Conservative approach to consumer affairs. There is never an approach like defending air passengers by passing air passenger protection because there is no offset in that for private business. That is what the Conservative government is all about.

We would like to support legislation like this, but we would like to see it being fair to the public. We do not want it to be legislation that turns some of the public sector over to the private sector so that it can benefit. I do not think we are going to see a lot of happy private businesses.

I would like to know when we are going to hear from a Conservative speaker on this bill. I have been waiting three days now for one of the government members to speak because I have some interesting questions to ask about an unknown part of this bill, and that is the rollback of odometers. While it is covered under the Weights and Measures Act, this bill would actually increase the penalties which would cover the rollback of odometers. That is great news. Why is there no mention of this in the government press release? As a matter of fact, rollback of odometers probably costs the Canadian public much more than what shortages at gasoline pumps cost them.

I would like somebody to answer that question.

Fairness at the Pumps Act
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10:20 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, the member for Elmwood—Transcona touched on a number of subjects in his question, but I am going to come back to the use of private sector service providers for the inspections.

There is a larger issue here. Canadians look to their government to provide some certainty around the products that they consume or fairness at the pumps. Over a number of years they have seen an erosion of that confidence in their government. We have seen toy recalls. We have seen problems with pet food. We have seen problems with cosmetics. We have seen this problem at the gas pumps. What that says to Canadians is the government is not putting the interests of Canadians first and foremost.

Private inspection agencies is simply the wrong way to go. That is a job that rightfully belongs to the government, with government inspectors and regulators.

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10:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Andrew Scheer

I wish to inform the House that we are now at the point in the debate where the speeches will be 10 minutes and the question and comment period will be 5 minutes.

Resuming debate. The hon. member for Hamilton Mountain.

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10:20 a.m.

NDP

Chris Charlton Hamilton Mountain, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act.

When it comes to transportation, we have made monumental advances in technologies. Inventions such as the train, bus and airplane have allowed us to explore the world we live in at relatively modest prices. Industrialization gave us the ability to mass produce public transit vehicles so that everyone could be free to move, but sadly, we are still using primitive and environmentally harmful petroleum fuels to propel most of our modes of transportation.

Both gasoline prices and carbon dioxide emissions are creating a growing transportation problem. As a result, governments are being forced to consider implementing better public transportation initiatives in an effort to reduce the impact of the declining oil economy on both our environment and on financial markets. What we need now from the senior levels of governments is a meaningful funding commitment to research and develop renewable energy sources that will allow municipalities, which are already struggling, to overcome their congestion and pollution problems.

In an ideal world, cycling and walking would be the preferred options for most Canadians, but unfortunately, with urban sprawl and a growing number of people who need to commute for work, they cannot avail themselves of those options. That leaves public transit as the only other sustainable solution because it is inclusive and economical, mitigates climate change and improves air quality. But progress in this area is moving at a snail's pace and in the meantime, people have few options but to stay in their cars.

That means the price of gas is an enormous factor in the day to day lives of Canadians. Whether they commute to work, travel to visit friends and family across the country, take meals to housebound seniors, drive their kids to weekend tournaments, or need gas to transport goods for small businesses, filling the tank is a constant struggle for millions of Canadians.

I have been hearing from people from right across my riding of Hamilton Mountain about the hardship that is caused by the rising price of gas, but what is worse is that they have no confidence that the price they are paying at the pump actually reflects what is happening in the market. They believe they are being hosed at the pumps. Here are just a few of the stories that they shared with me.

Jeff said, “It isn't fair that I can barely pay my bills, and paying for fuel keeps me from paying off debt, while gas companies increase their profits by billions”. Vivian said, “I'm retired and finally have some time to visit friends and family. But the car sits in the driveway because I can't afford to travel. The gouging oil companies have taken away our way of life”. Dennis wrote, “If we cannot count on the huge oil conglomerates to treat us fairly and not gouge us...the government should step in and do it for them...we are all being gouged big time”. Mark said, “The oil companies are making billions, while driving has become a luxury we can't afford. Who has the power here, the government or the oil companies?”

The price of gas drives up the cost of all commodities. From food to building supplies, manufactured goods to public services, the price of gas is a key cost driver. It affects all of us, whether we drive or not. Government has a responsibility to ensure Canadian consumers are treated fairly. It is the job of government to protect Canadians from the dubious business practices of big oil companies who steal from consumers with faulty gas pumps and gouge Canadians with price hikes inexplicably tied to weekends and warm weather.

Unfortunately, if predictably, Bill C-14 addresses only one element of that complex problem. It promises to increase fines and penalties for retailers who operate gas pumps that significantly shortchange consumers. To say that this is a day late and a dollar short is a profound understatement.

It is worth reviewing how we got here, how we got to a place where years after clear fraud has been exposed, this allegedly tough on crime government is only now getting around to proposing completely inadequate, half-baked remedies. It has been two long and expensive years since the Ottawa Citizen first reported that the government knew that its friends in the oil and gas industry had been ripping off consumers for decades. When the government was finally forced to release the Industry Canada report showing that fully 14,000 gas stations in Canada have at least one inaccurate pump, the New Democrats demanded action. The government said, “Good idea. We will get right on that”, and did precisely nothing.

During the last election campaign, the government again said to Canadians that it was going to do something about fuel pumps that deliver less fuel than the consumer paid for. The Conservatives indicated that this time they really, really meant it, yet they still did nothing. Finally, with this bill, the government has proposed an increase in fines and penalties for retailers who steal from their customers, but that addresses only part of the problem.

In advancing Bill C-14, the government has completely ignored the other critical issues that need urgent attention. In fact, the list of issues that this legislation does not address is more impressive than the legislation itself. We see no mention of the price gouging policies of big oil that mean consumers pay more for gas on long weekends and over the summer. There is no means of refunding consumers for decades of overpayment resulting from faulty pumps, estimated to amount to millions of dollars a year. There is not a word about restitution for the taxes that the government has collected on those overpayments, and this legislation is silent on the repercussions of privatizing inspection services, a move that essentially leaves the gas industry to police itself. We have seen how well that works.

The government must demonstrate that it gets it, and the bill does not do that. It is so bereft of meaningful solutions to the challenges Canadians face that one cannot help but suspect it is little more than a token to consumers, while big oil is left free to operate much as it has always done.

Then again, this is a government that has chosen to spend $6 billion this year alone on corporate tax cuts to big corporations like the oil and gas industry, so I suppose I am not surprised that this is where its priorities lie. But it is adding insult to injury by punishing hard-working Canadians even further with the much hated HST, which will increase the price of gas by another 8%.

Time and again the government shovels tax dollars by the truckload into the hands of profitable corporations while it fails to stand up for consumers. Canadians want a mechanism to protect them from the excesses of the big oil companies. They want an independent arbiter who can hear their concerns and complaints and make decisions in the public interest.

That is why I introduced Bill C-286, legislation to create an oil and gas ombudsman who would be charged with providing strong, effective consumer protection to ensure no big business could swindle, cheat or rip off hardworking families.

An oil and gas ombudsman would be an independent monitoring agency where Canadians could hold oil and gas companies accountable for their business practices. The ombudsman's office would investigate consumer and business complaints relating to price fixing, gouging and cheating, and provide for remediation. Upon receipt of a complaint, the ombudsman would then challenge gas companies to respond, and could report to the Minister of Industry for action if he or she remained unsatisfied with the response. Finally, the ombudsman's office would report annually to the House of Commons on the activities and findings of the office, so that Canadians would get accountability through their elected representatives.

It is time to shine a light on how the petroleum industry operates in this country and to hold it to account on behalf of Canadians. In a country as vast as ours and as poorly served by public transit, the ability to fill up the tank should not be a luxury. Exorbitant profits financed by price gouging and tax subsidies must be remedied.

I urge the government to do its job, to stand up for Canadian consumers and put big oil on notice that we mean business and we will hold them to account.

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10:30 a.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, members are aware that over the last 20 years, perhaps, successive studies have been done. As a matter of fact the pile is thick. I believe about 125 studies have been done on price fixing at the gas pumps. In all cases, at the end of the day the conclusion has always been that the oil companies are doing nothing wrong, when the public knows better. The fact of the matter is that the Competition Act has to be changed. That is key to this whole business.

The Bloc has introduced a bill in private members' hour, Bill C-452, to do exactly that. Under the Competition Act, it would authorize the Commissioner of Competition to inquire into an entire industry sector.

It has been pointed out many times that gas prices are much higher here than in the United States. We know there is price gouging and price fixing going on. It has been reported many, many times by people, who actually work in the gas stations, that they get a phone call from their head office and are told to raise the price. They do this with all of their stations. They do not dare question that.

That is what is really key here, but does the government make any moves in this direction? Absolutely not. Did the Liberal government do anything about this issue during its 13 years in power? Absolutely not. At the end of the day, we can only conclude that what we need is an NDP government in this country to bring in real consumer protection, because it will not happen under Conservatives or Liberals.