Mr. Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak to Bill C-248, an act to amend the Competition Act. It is a timely piece of legislation given the current situation in our country as far as our concern goes for our economy generally. However, it is also timely because we are reviewing parts of the Competition Act in committee right now.
I want to commend the hon. member for Pickering--Ajax--Uxbridge for bringing this legislation forward. He is becoming quite well known for his critique of the Competition Act and the tribunals and so on. It is a well earned reputation. He is someone who, both in committee and in the House, is building a reputation for the strength of his private members' bills and his committee work. It is a tribute to him as an individual MP who sometimes kicks over the traces a little bit, which is always to be admired in this place. More important, he does it on a matter that he has focused in on and I think he has done a good job of highlighting a concern he has about the Competition Act.
I do want to know how he always gets his bills drawn from the private members' bin. That in itself deserves a competition investigation.
In the time given to me I want to talk briefly about the specific circumstances that led to the need for the bill, and I think we have heard a good part of that, about the other changes possibly required in the Competition Act and then finally about the kind of overlying principles that I think are at stake when we talk about changing the Competition Act.
Bill C-248 would amend section 96 of the Competition Act by stating the following:
For the purpose of subsection (1), gains in efficiency cannot offset the effects of a lessening or prevention of competition unless the majority of the benefits derived or to be derived from such gains in efficiency are being or are likely to be passed on to customers within a reasonable time in the form of lower prices.
In layman's terms, if there are big savings to be made in a merger that results in a essential monopoly, then the majority of those savings has to be passed on. In other words, it is a quid pro quo. If there is a monopoly, under the amendment the customer then gets a benefit. They cannot have their cake and eat it too. If there is a monopoly there has to be something in it for consumers.
Proposed subsection 96(5) states:
This section does not apply where, after the transaction has been completed, the merger or proposed merger, will result or is likely to result in the creation or strengthening of a dominant market position.
My understanding is that this was brought about because in July 1998 Superior Propane put forward a proposal to purchase ICG Propane from Petro-Canada. This gave Superior control of nearly 70% of the Canadian propane industry and the competition commissioner commenced his inquiry into the transaction in August of that same year. In December the commissioner applied to the tribunal for an interim order preventing completion of the transaction. He was concerned because he felt that the deal would hurt farmers, small businesses and ordinary consumers.
The tribunal rejected his application and the parties completed the transaction in December 1998. After the tribunal's ruling, the competition commissioner appealed the decision to the federal court. The court ruled that the competition tribunal “had incorrectly applied the efficiency defence”, stating that the decision was in contradiction of the stated purpose of the act, that is, “to maintain and encourage competition”.
The case is now back before the competition tribunal which will make a new decision next year. Meanwhile Superior has merged its operations with ICG. To sum it all up in a nutshell, one company bought another company, giving it a virtual monopoly in the Canadian propane industry. The argument is how far we will let that go before a monopoly threatens prices or undermines fair competition and, in many cases, undermines the livelihood of Canadians who are dependent on the propane industry.
The Competition Tribunal of Canada allowed this act to take place and supported it. The argument it used is that the merger would save Superior $29 million over 10 years. In other words, the tribunal said yes, it was concerned about the monopoly but the savings were so significant that it was worth putting up with the monopoly.
The problem with the original ruling is that it was very precedent setting. It allowed or would have allowed a monopoly or virtual monopoly in the marketplace, so we were just supposed to hope against hope, I guess, that consumers would not pay a price for it down the road.
Almost every time we see a monopoly or virtual monopoly in the marketplace, if not immediately but certainly down the road, the consumer pays. Monopolies are not good for the marketplace, they are not good for consumers and often they are not even good for business.
I only have to point out the example of Air Canada. I do not know if Air Canada got what it wanted, but when it got a virtual monopoly in the air travel industry that did not actually help it. It certainly did not help consumers, nor did it serve the marketplace well. In the long run not only did we pay a lot for our tickets and see a reduction in service, but now we see that the company itself is going through tough times. A monopoly is no guarantee of efficiency. A bad business deal or a bad situation, especially when dealing in international markets, means businesses go under rather than become competitive.
I will summarize by saying that according to the tribunal, efficiency is not in and of itself enough of a reason to acknowledge or recognize a monopoly. After the ruling of the court, this is back again for a further ruling. We will see how this legislation goes, but I think we will end up having to wait for that further ruling before we see the legislation before us today go the extra mile and actually become law.
While we are talking about competition, it is interesting to me to see that the recent report by the OECD points out that we do have problems in Canada with the Competition Bureau and tribunals in regard to how this is handled. It is often a political football. It is often used by government to either shirk its responsibilities or fob them off on someone else. It was pointed out by the OECD that occasionally the government turns a blind eye to monopolies, hoping that they are in the national interest. However, they are seldom in the national interest and seldom, if ever, in the consumer's interest, and I would argue it is not in the interest of the marketplace generally.
The marketplace is not well served by monopolies. No matter how much money monopolies think they are saving in the initial pass, in the long run the consumer will pay and our national competitiveness takes a blow.
Again, because we are now dealing in an international marketplace, it is pretty hard for us to go to another country when we have our own nice little Canadian monopolies and tell that other country that its monopolies are bad. Increasingly we will see the Competition Act and other bilateral agreements forcing Canada to be as concerned about our monopolies as we are about those of other countries.
In other words, it is like a free trade agreement. We will not be able to say that one monopoly is good for our one little part of the rock but another monopoly across the border is a bad one. We will have to say that when the marketplace is competitive it is competitive for all of us, not just when we think it is a good thing for our little industry or our part of the rock.
In conclusion I will summarize by saying that there are conflicting principles at stake. One is the free enterprise principle, that is, we should encourage free enterprise. That is a sound principle and I hope all of us in the House understand the need for it. Second, however, there is a role for the government to ensure that monopolies do not take place and that unfair practices are not foisted on consumers. When that happens, the government has a role to play to ensure that competition exists and that true free enterprise can take place.
The last thing, and the one concern I have with the bill, is that when we encourage companies to be as efficient as possible they do not realize any savings from being efficient.
In other words, we have to trade off the idea of “monopolies are bad”. On the other hand, when we create efficiencies, it is because companies are trying to save money. We have to allow them to save money and to be efficient, but we have to do it in an atmosphere that does not allow monopolies.
That is why the bill should go to committee for further study. The principles are sound. I hope that we can support it, at least at second reading, to see if we can integrate it into the Competition Act.