Madam Speaker, it is my pleasure to address Bill C-66.
I want to read the bill into the record and what it is supposed to do, because it is important in terms of analyzing whether or not it actually fulfills the government's objectives in terms of addressing the increasing costs of home heating fuel and gasoline prices for Canadians. The full title of the bill is “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”. The bill has three main parts.
Part 1 of the bill outlines who will receive a payment and how much. The payment is targeted to some low income Canadians and will be sent to three different groups: first, $250 to families entitled to receive the national child benefit supplement in January 2006; second, $250 to senior couples where both spouses are entitled to receive the guaranteed income supplement, the GIS, in January 2006; and third, $125 to single seniors entitled to receive the GIS, in January 2006. These are one time payments that will not be issued until the bill is passed.
Part 2 of the bill increases and expands financial assistance and incentive programs for houses and housing projects that make heating system upgrades, improve windows and engage in draft proofing, et cetera. All of this assistance will be delivered over a five year period.
Part 3 deals with public infrastructure. It states that $400 million previously provided for under Bill C-48 will be freed up by Bill C-66 in each of the next two fiscal years for municipalities to boost investments in urban transit infrastructure.
Parts 4 and 5 of the bill are housekeeping measures.
In addition to the measures laid out in the bill, the government has also announced two other measures with respect to energy prices. First, the office of petroleum price information will be created. Second, the government has indicated it will be introducing amendments to Bill C-19 which are intended to strengthen the role of the Competition Bureau in investigating allegations of price fixing in the oil and gas industry.
To begin, I would like to discuss the reasons for various increases in energy costs. Then I will address the issue of payments for low income Canadians and offer an alternative plan to the Liberal plan. Then I will discuss the secondary measures introduced to attempt to offset high energy prices which are outlined in the bill and those announced outside of the bill. Finally, I will discuss energy policy generally under the government.
I would like to briefly outline the current supply and demand issues facing Canadian consumers, Canadian businesses, and our market. There has in fact been a spike in energy prices. There have been a number of contributing factors to the reduction in supply that have caused this spike.
The first obviously is natural disasters. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have caused considerable disruption in the supply of oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico and across North America. As of October 11 three refineries were still shut down from hurricane Katrina and four were still shut down from hurricane Rita, obviously taking that supply off the market.
While Canada is in fact a net exporter of energy, we do import a great deal of our refined oil and gas, especially those provinces east of Manitoba.
International issues such as the political troubles in Iraq, Nigeria and Venezuela have created uncertainty in the supply chain. In addition, there have been production declines in the North Sea and Russia, while worldwide spare production capacity is at its lowest level in three decades. Only Saudi Arabia at this point has any spare crude oil production capacity available.
Despite the decrease in supply, demand has remained stable. The 2004 demand increased worldwide by approximately 3%. This growth will likely slow, but will continue to grow between 1.5% and 2% in 2005-06.
At a briefing this week by four of the industry associations involved in the energy sector, it was basically pointed out that over 40% of the increase in the demand for worldwide crude was as a result of the growing economy in China particularly.
This steady demand coupled with the decrease in supply has led to increased energy prices both at home and abroad in every sector.
I must point out, however, that most of the Canadian information on the projected increase in energy prices for the upcoming winter actually comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a statistical agency of the U.S. Department of Energy. It is a shame that similar information cannot be obtained from the federal government through the Department of Natural Resources.
MJ Ervin & Associates, the private sector forecaster and observer of oil and gas prices, has estimated that the average price of home heating fuel has jumped to its highest level on record, 93¢ a litre. The best guess is that homes heated with oil can expect to pay 32% more this year, while homes heated with natural gas can expect to pay 48% more. Electricity bills will also rise but not as dramatically.
In New Brunswick the cost of home heating oil is 5¢ higher than the national average. New Brunswick Power has announced it will request a 10% increase in its electricity rates next year. In Quebec where 70% of the homes are heated by electricity, the provincial energy board will review a request by Hydro-Québec to increase rates by 3%.
In Ontario the Ontario Energy Board approved a rate increase for Enbridge gas that will increase natural gas bills by about $123 a year. Union Gas also sought and received a rate increase. Sixty per cent of Ontario residents rely on natural gas for heating.
The British Columbia Utilities Commission just approved a 13.3% increase in natural gas. Even in Alberta, Direct Energy has asked the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board to approve a rate increase that will increase the average home heating bill by more than 20%. The average monthly bill for October in Calgary will be $162.
As we can see, the increase in the cost of heating one's home is affecting Canadians from coast to coast to coast. What has the government done to deal with this massive, broad problem facing Canadian citizens and businesses across the country?
At the heart of Bill C-66 is a payment for some of Canada's poorest citizens. Obviously we in the Conservative Party support measures that provide relief for low income families. We have an obligation to represent and support those who have so much less than the average Canadian.
The government estimates that 3.1 million low income families, or 10% of Canadians, will receive these so-called rebate cheques, although they are actually payment cheques. I am pleased that some effort is being made to try to assist low income Canadians. These Canadians should not simply be left on their own to try to deal with rising energy costs, particularly those on fixed incomes dealing with increases in home heating.
The problem is that the delivery method chosen by the government will miss too many Canadians who need help paying their heating bills and their gasoline bills for their cars to get them to and from work. Persons with disabilities who claim a disability benefit will not receive the payment. Seniors who qualify for the GIS but do not claim it will not receive a payment. A Statistics Canada study released on Friday, October 21, 2005 found that over 206,000 eligible individuals missed out because they did not in fact claim the GIS.
With respect to seniors, we also have a situation where someone whose pension makes them equivalent to someone on the GIS will not in fact receive any sort of assistance under the government's program. Students will not receive a payment.
This program will not help poor Canadians who do not have children. Research from Statistics Canada again indicates that nearly two million individuals under 65 who fall below the low income threshold have no children. Under this bill these individuals will receive no help.
It will miss most farmers who have been hit very hard by the energy price spike. They must not only heat their homes but their barns as well. It will also miss many Canadians who are poor, but not quite poor enough in the government's eyes to qualify for a payment. Of course, it must be noted that this plan does not in any way, shape or form offer relief at the pump nor compensate for the increase in fuel prices.
We in the Conservative Party have an alternative. We have an alternative because too many Canadians will not be assisted by this plan. We have a plan that will help all Canadians. The fact is the government should start by axing the tax on the tax at the pumps. This would give an immediate tax break to all Canadians. Two Liberal members spoke and basically gave the party line as to why the Liberal government does not want to do this.
The fact is it would be a very immediate measurable thing that would impact Canadians by reducing the tax at the pumps. It would obviously reduce it for people who drive their own vehicles but it would also reduce it, as the member mentioned, for public transit. It would also reduce it for municipalities and others who have to pay for school divisions, who have to pay for fuel, who have to ship students to and from school, municipalities that have to subsidize their public transit.
Further to that, if the government wants to help public transit, then it should adopt the plan put forward by our leader this summer in Toronto to allow people who have public transit passes to claim a certain percentage of the cost. It is not one or the other. We can do both at the same time and offer tax relief to more than just a few Canadians in this plan.
The fact is 42% of the cost of a litre of gasoline is federal, provincial and municipal taxes, including the GST. As a comparison, in the United States it is 27%. Currently the 7% GST and the HST are charged on gasoline after federal, provincial and in some cases municipal governments have added their excise taxes.
The fact is the Liberal government continues to overtax Canadians. The government should not profit when people are feeling the effects of these increased prices in their pocketbooks and at the dinner table.
For every 1¢ increase in gasoline prices, the federal government receives about $32 million in extra revenue. That money should be going back into the pockets of Canadians and not into the pockets of the government.
In addition, the Conservative Party will reduce personal taxes overall. That is the second way to immediately address this issue in a broad way. Instead of selectively picking some low income Canadians over other low income Canadians, we could reduce personal taxes overall.
A Conservative government's approach would provide immediate and long term broad based tax relief starting with reducing personal income tax rates and substantially raising both the basic personal exemption and the spousal exemption under the Income Tax Act. Reducing personal income taxes would hike the take home pay and raise the standard of living of all Canadians.
The fact is we have driven the tax agenda in this country for years and we will continue to do so because it is fair. It is fair that Canadians keep more of their own life energy in their own pockets to spend as they best see fit.
I want to move on to the second part of the bill. I want to point out that while part 1 books the expenditures on payments to low income Canadians in the current fiscal year, the expenditures in part 2 are over five years. This is very odd accounting, but as we are finding out more and more with the way the government deals with budgets and finances, it is simply a classic example of Liberal accounting.
What I believe the Liberals are trying to do is to force us to accept spending on the EnerGuide program, spending that could have been announced in past budgets or in the next budget. They want us to accept this by tying it to the energy payment for low income Canadians. There is no reason to put it in this bill.
In fact Bill C-66 includes $205 million from already announced energy efficiency programs, and $100 million which is being moved out of Bill C-48 and into Bill C-66 under the guise of energy efficiency. This is simply ridiculous. This clause of the bill is completely unnecessary. A whopping 43% of the funds set aside for the bill will go to the administration of the EnerGuide program, not toward tax cuts or rebates.
In theory, the EnerGuide program provides financial assistance to homeowners and landlords to help improve energy efficiency. I encourage members to talk to constituents who have actually utilized this program, because I have. The fact is it is an extremely complicated program. It requires a homeowner or landlord to pay for an inspection of their home both before and after renovations to see if they can receive a loan or rebate for the changes they have made to improve the energy efficiency of their own home. Some funding will flow through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, but will benefit only 130,000 low income Canadians. The same number, only 130,000 Canadians, have used this program since October 2003.
We are spending more than $1 billion on an EnerGuide program that may be only used by 260,000 Canadians. This is yet another example of misguided Liberal priorities.
I would like to move on to part 3 of the bill, which deals with infrastructure. Again, this section of the bill is not necessary. This spending was announced under Bill C-48, the second budget bill, but has been moved to Bill C-66, which is a bad example of tricky Liberal accounting. This is certainly a question that the government should have to answer.
First of all, how can the Liberals introduce a budget by Bill C-43 and, second, declare non-confidence in their own budget, introduce a second budget, say that the funding would proceed once they knew the fiscal figures for 2004-05 and say that spending would commence as of August 2006? I believe that is what the parliamentary secretary told the Senate committee. Then, somehow, the government moved spending from that bill, Bill C-48, to this bill, Bill C-66.
This money does not help rural Canadians, who pay some of the highest energy costs. In addition, it does not provide the stable funding that municipalities are looking for. The money is actually being allocated without any thought as to what it actually might be used for.
The Conservative Party, on the other hand, is committed to developing an infrastructure plan that would not only provide money to municipalities to meet infrastructure needs, but would also provide benchmarks to allow local governments the ability to plan in the long term for their own infrastructure needs.
We have also committed to meeting and even possibly exceeding the amount of money spent on infrastructure by the federal government through the so-called gasoline tax transfer. Such commitments are very much in line with the infrastructure goals of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Moving to the last two sections of the bill, I note that they deal with measures that are rather small measures in terms of costs but large in terms of the federal government.
First, Industry Canada is finally giving more money to the Competition Bureau to allow it to conduct investigations into collusion. The Conservative Party and members of the Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology have been requesting the government to increase funding to the bureau since April 2002. The bureau has indicated for years that it does not have the resources needed to carry out the investigations.
However, we have not seen the amendments to Bill C-19 that would make changes to the Competition Act and allow the bureau more flexibility in its investigations. I am certainly looking forward to those amendments, although I have a bit of a digression here. At committee we have heard witnesses on Bill C-19, which the government is sort of presenting as the answer to increased gasoline prices by saying that if there is any evidence of collusion it will be dealt with by increasing the powers of the competition commissioner.
I can accept the argument that perhaps more resources are needed for the bureau, but the fact is that any six Canadians can write to the competition commissioner and ask her to investigate any sort of a discrepancy they feel is in the oil and gasoline industry. The government's argument that in fact the bureau needs more powers to conduct investigations is actually ridiculous.
The fact is that Bill C-19, according to some very able lawyers across this country, is simply an incredibly flawed piece of legislation. It is in no way an answer to what the government is saying it is in terms of dealing with gasoline prices. Frankly, the government should even withdraw the bill. It should send this back to the justice department and rewrite a proper bill.
Second, to return to Bill C-66, it would create the petroleum price monitoring agency. It is rather ironic that the government is presenting this as an answer, because lo and behold, the current Prime Minister eliminated this in the 1995 budget. I find it a little strange that something that the then finance minister and current Prime Minister eliminated in 1995 is now being presented by him as an answer in 2005.
The fact is that if the natural resources department would act in a practical manner and provide this information we could easily have this information available. The natural resources department and this entire government have languished in developing a long term energy framework and have actually contributed to the high heating costs we will experience this winter.
The Conservative Party has been focusing for a long time on a long term energy framework which would focus on renewable and non-renewable energy sources, take into account outstanding obligations and meet our long term requirements for domestic consumption and export.
We believe that strengthening energy market integration will ensure greater reliability of energy supplies across the country. We will explore ways to reduce barriers to the movement of energy products across provincial and other borders. The fact is that the Liberals have not addressed any of these issues. The Liberals have not had the time to monitor or publish an energy policy or reports on gas prices, which was promised this fall. Private companies such as MJ Ervin and Associates have stepped in to fill the void.
We find that the bill is severely lacking and way too limited in scope in terms of who it helps and that it is misguided in its approach. We will begrudgingly support the bill, as it does help some low income Canadians, but we certainly hope that the government will bring forward another bill. We will certainly be looking forward to committee, where we can actually try to expand this to help all low income Canadians and in fact all Canadians who are dealing with higher energy costs.