Mr. Speaker, it is indeed an honour to be here today after several years of attempting to redress certain wrongs that were not being perceived correctly in the marketplace. The efforts of myself and my colleagues are finally being recognized on the floor of the House of Commons today.
It is a privilege to have worked with members on the other side of the House, in particular le député de Verchères--Les-Patriotes, the member for Winnipeg Centre, the member for Fraser Valley, the member for Edmonton Southwest and the member for Peace River. I want to give particular thanks to my colleagues who have stood shoulder to shoulder with me over the past several years as we went through the historical and concerned battles with respect to inappropriate pricing, particularly for the independent retailers of gasoline, and the impact which I think we are seeing unfold today of the mergers in the grocery industry and in the telecommunications industry. I thank the member for Tobique--Mactaquac; my good friend and colleague from Yukon; the member for St. Catharines, who is also the vice-chair of the committee; the member for Eglinton--Lawrence; the current chair, the member for Essex; the member for Burlington; and the member for Algoma--Manitoulin.
The bill in essence has been drawn from three or four private members' bills. The more controversial parts, needless to say, came from my Bill C-472 in the last parliament. This understanding of the need for change started back in 1996-97. Yes, it occurred in the energy industry but it also meant that it applied to every other industry as well because we understood the competitive process. At the time there was much resistance to Bill C-235 in the House. Notwithstanding that it had been voted on at second reading and sent to committee, the bill suffered ignominious defeat. It dealt with a concept which has now gripped the country in other industries, that is, the whole concept of the strength and effectiveness of predatory pricing.
It took the courage, understanding and sympathy, as well as the good intentions of the member for Scarborough Centre who, along with the competition commissioner and the then minister of industry, took the time to hear the concerns. They heard the frustrations that were being delivered to me as a member of parliament by a number of businesses in the country that had no voice.
This legislation could not have been without his efforts. The hon. member for Scarborough Centre will be one of the unsung heroes should the legislation meet with the support of the upper house. I wanted to take the time to pay tribute to his efforts without which I think this change to the Competition Act would never have been debated today. We certainly would be dealing with other issues.
I have been on a very long road, some would call it a crusade, not only to amend and bring our competition law in line with our competitor's but also to have it respond effectively to the needs of Canadians, whether they be in large businesses, in small businesses or consumers.
Years ago I wrote an article with respect to the CRTC. At the time I quipped that it was not Canadian radio, television and communications but rather consumers who were rarely taken into consideration. I think we have for some time forgiven ourselves for not doing enough to ensure that there is a level playing field for consumers who want to receive not just effective costs but also choice.
More often than not people will ask how we can attack this issue or that issue when the price is so darn good. We all know the old common quip of short term gain, long term pain. If one business is able to remove its competitor, often through a lack of oversight, which it must rely on for supply or from an acquisition perspective, we suddenly see the prices rise dramatically.
More recently the member for Fraser Valley and I have been co-slaggees, which is not really a word. We have been hit by a couple of editorials in some of what I would say are papers that are more in tune with business papers such as the Financial Post and the Southam chain or at least the Ottawa Citizen . That happened because we dared to suggest that the Competition Act, which they wrote in 1986 with the help of a handful of individuals, should now be subjected to the democratic rigours of members of parliament.
Day in and day out members hear frustrations from their constituents that there is no response because the competition commissioner or the Competition Bureau does not believe there is a case or there is indifference. Also if someone were to speak out without the protection of a member of parliament and parliamentary privilege, that person's company could find itself subjected to rather unsavoury tactics after the fact.
We are here today to provide a new direction, a direction that does not radically depart from the essence of due process of the Competition Act. What we are saying is that in the case of private right of access, interim orders, and certainly in the case of cease and desist as is better described, we are now helping people who might not have the time let alone the financial deep pockets to spend the time trying to defend themselves.
We saw this happen with independent gas retailers. I have mentioned a number of other industries where this occurs. Parliament and the media are very much gripped with the issue of Air Canada. It was music to my ears after writing a letter on November 23 to the Minister of Transport. I requested that he not issue a separate operating certificate for another discount airliner but, more important, that we toughen things up given his position, the week before of improving the Competition Act. Perhaps more adjudication of issues coming out of the airline industry could be provided and more issues surrendered to the rigours of our Competition Act. We could also look at a scenario that provides stronger, tougher cease and desist, not just for an 80 day maximum but right up until the tribunal has the time and an opportunity to review the potential or alleged anti-competitive act.
I also called for a penalty of some $50 million. As colleagues know, the committee, I guess wisely, chose to make that $15 million. The point was made. I want to suggest, not just to Canadians who may be listening to us today but to backbenchers and people who normally do not have a hand in influencing law, that indeed we can make a difference when we decide to apply ourselves on issues that are relevant to Canadians.
We have had opportunities in the past to look at changes to the Competition Act. The subject I would like to discuss is private access. So that people will understand, this allows it in four limited areas. We wanted to make sure we were observant of the safeguards. So many thought we would dispose of them, that we would somehow fling ourselves open to that terrible system which the United States has, not to mention that it is the most productive nation in the world from an economic point of view, but God knows we were not allowed to talk about triple damages or Australia's example of double damages.
No, Canada had to have a form of economic feudalism imposed on it by a handful of individuals who wrote the Competition Act in 1986. For some strange reason they do not want members of parliament meddling with a perfectly good piece of legislation when it is improved and certainly sanitized by the views of Canadians as represented democratically.
I found it very interesting that we heard from the likes of, and I will not mention his name because I do not think it is worth mentioning, people involved with the Financial Post . They actually suggested that members of parliament ought not to be making deliberations, that they should be something between business and business when it comes to the Competition Act.
Comments like that obviously are made by individuals who very much believe that they can hide behind their pens and write whatever they want in the solid belief that paper will not refuse ink.
We have heavier goals to respond to. One of those is to ensure that we have effective legislation that meets the test of time. It is for this reason I compliment the initiatives by our government to address some of the fundamental failings of the Competition Act but in particular not to give businesses an opportunity to engage and an opportunity to bring their cases before the Competition Tribunal. Why is that so important?
As we heard on several occasions, there are not enough precedents with the cases that are submitted to the Competition Tribunal. This is why we do not know the specific weaknesses and strengths of our Competition Act.
It has been at least 15 years since the act was truly reformed and the vast majority of Canadians think we should take this opportunity to review it and ensure that the objectives of our constituents, of consumers and of all businesses, big and small, are included in this legislation.
It is therefore with great pleasure that we made representations, as we are doing now at third reading of the bill, to ensure that small, medium and large sized companies, which really know their product and their business, are at least given an opportunity to know that they can submit their case to the tribunal. We want directors and those who work with the Competition Bureau to have an idea of these lesser known changes.
These differences are often not perceptible to public servants, but they are well understood and supported by those who work in that business field. This is why I am sure that by providing tools to businesses first they will at least be able to settle their cases, because we will have made the act accessible to them.
It is for this reason that these initiatives affect small businesses as much as large businesses. The public perceives that there is a problem but cannot get the proper justice. It cannot get the attention of the Competition Bureau to express the difficulty that exists. Those difficulties may happen in a short period of time, such that the person may be physically out of business.
There are many examples of businesses that have gone under. They have not gone under because they were not efficient and competitive. They put in their sweat, equity, their children's future and their own future. However, much larger businesses with deeper pockets knew full well that the Competition Act was written in such a way that only those who had deep pockets could make use of it.
It is for this reason that we have finally changed the definition and perhaps changed the Competition Act in such a way as to give those individuals a fighting chance to bring their cases before the Competition Tribunal.
These are not questions that we could easily dismiss about whether or not there would be effectiveness with the legislation. The committee heard from Australian commissioner Allan Fells. Australia is not just another country. It happens to be literally a brother or sister within the Commonwealth with laws that are much along the same wavelength as ours. The commissioner came to the conclusion that much of the body of law had been improved by private access, particularly in the area of refusal to deal. My hon. colleagues had an opportunity to exchange those views with the commissioner. We were very pleased to see that happening.
On the other hand there were concerns that having a bit of private access in Canada might ultimately lead to some kind of perversion in which we would have frivolous and vexatious or, as some would call it, strategic litigation. My amendments in committee were improvements. We improved on the terms “if it finds that the proceedings are frivolous or vexatious or that any step in the proceedings is taken to hinder or delay their progress” by putting forward an amendment in accordance with the provisions governing costs in the federal court rules, 1998.
There is little that one can raise as a concern about what this would lead to because it is already understood in law and it is the practice of every court. It is literally a situation wherein a judge would ask to have this stupid case removed from his court right away. The rules the committee suggested, and I hope parliament would approve, would see individuals who bring frivolous or vexatious claims pay a substantial cost as an disincentive for them not to engage in frivolous or vexatious activity.
The member for Fraser Valley suggested that was inevitable. We know that we can do this before any court. The provisions and safeguards are there. Notwithstanding their efforts, professors Michael Trebilcock and Tom Ross suggested that the time to deal with this had ended. We have been dealing with this for 30 years. Let us get on with it. They also suggested that perhaps down the road it would give rise to the need to extend it to other areas, for example abuse of dominant position in sections 78 and 79 of the Competition Act.
Those would be bold moves but they are not ones that parliament would want to make today. We have struck the right balance between assuring that the provisions of the bill would incorporate both the anxieties of those who suggest it is going too far and accommodating those who say in the main that we have not gone far enough.
I am pleased to see that the committee and parliament are addressing this issue with the help of the Minister of Industry at a speed that would allow us to ensure that 2002 will bring with it new expectations for the economy.
This is not just any other bill. The Competition Act, as we will learn today, is probably the second most important economic instrument to Canadians after our fiscal and monetary policy. It is for those reasons that while there are some who say monetary and fiscal policy must be in sync the bill says that our competition law must be in sync, with the rest of the world in a more globalized environment. I am pleased to see that the committee decided to proceed with some of those necessary changes.
We have heard some criticism being levelled at people who tend to venture out and respond to crises several months before their time. When I began my concerns about what was happening in the energy industry, it was not simply about gasoline.
I have a bill before the House that is votable. It deals with the efficiencies defence in the Competition Act in the area of propane. Last year I was concerned about the sudden dramatic rise in the price of heating oil. The government acted responsibly in helping those who had no way of defending themselves. I applaud the Minister of Finance for having done what he did.
If we can take advantage of loopholes in the Competition Act in one specific area, chances are we will be able to do it in others. It is quite ironic that in an article written last week by the Financial Post we read that airlines do not need to be regulated any more than gasoline. This speaks to the very issue that I brought forward. The Competition Act responds to many sectors of the economy as a framework law. We are here to improve the process.
I find it passing strange that the same papers which lament members of parliament and senators engaging in issues that are important to Canadians have the unmitigated gall to engage in a critique in a soft and independent editorial viewpoint.
We saw that this week with respect to Southam telling members of one of its many groups that if they did not like what it was doing they should not bother publishing it. What happened to local views? What happened beyond the question of price to some of the competition? It is clear we have a problem. This is exactly why on August 3, 2000, I wrote to the Prime Minister, saying:
This week's announcement by CanWest Global to acquire controlling interest of Hollinger Inc., coupled with BCE's acquisition of CTV, has fuelled wide speculation that more media takeovers and mergers are pending...Communications media compete in part by offering independent editorial viewpoints and an independent gatekeeper function. A scenario that eventually sees only a handful of media players, cannot effectively respond to a demand for choice or diversity of competition by extending their product lines, since the new media products will inevitably bear, to some degree, the perspective of their common corporate parent.
If it is good for the goose, it is good for the gander. This has been done in industry without even the prospect of oversight. Companies have disappeared in the night, have been wiped off the map, because they were buying gasoline for 52 cents a litre wholesale with all the taxes included but the person who was supplying the gasoline was selling it for 47 cents.
That is anti-competitive yet it is not illegal under the current definition in the rigours of our act. Nor is it illegal to have 75% of the market for propane in one specific region of the country at a time when farmers need it for drying their crops. Nor is it illegal for an airline company that has 80% of the airline market to say it will drop its prices, but only in two locations where it has any semblance of a vigorous and effective competitor.
It is nice to receive editorials, condemning or otherwise, but it would be nice if papers had the intestinal fortitude to publish a story relating to that which they are criticizing. That is politics, I suppose. When we do not have to put our name on the ballot to get elected, is it any wonder that we can hide behind the pen and say anything we want?
The courage of the House of Commons and members of parliament to make dramatic necessary changes in the context of the country and the Competition Act warms the heart of every consumer in Canada. I applaud each and every member of parliament. Let us keep up the good work and make a difference for Canadians.