Mr. Speaker, I am rising today to speak, as my colleagues have before me, on the third reading of Bill C-11, an act respecting the imposition of duties of customs and other charges. This bill will replace the Customs Tariff currently in effect and simplify its application.
This bill is extremely significant for Canada. First of all, because it will make life easier for our businesses, but mainly because this is a preliminary effort on the part of the government to get rid of numerous rules relating to customs duties that are both obsolete and useless.
We, along with the people of Canada, have long been calling for less bureaucracy and more efficiency in our government system. The resulting savings will be of benefit to Canadian businesses and Canadian taxpayers.
My colleagues in the Bloc Quebecois and myself support Bill C-11, for it is high time there was some tidying up of Canada's Customs Tariff. Moreover, the World Trade Organization shared that opinion. In its July 2, 1990 report on Canada's trade policy, the WTO described the Canadian tariff system as “complex and lacking transparency”. Seven years ago, that was the WTO's comment on our customs system. The time was therefore ripe for a thorough reform of Canada's Customs Tariff.
When the February 1994 budget was tabled, the Minister of Finance made a commitment to undertake an in-depth examination of the Canadian customs duty system, and he set himself a three-year deadline. To this end, a task force was set up in his department. Improved tariffs were proposed in 1996 and subsequently supposedly submitted to public consultation.
As I said earlier, we support Bill C-11. However, we must once again express our indignation at the government's approach to getting the bill passed. The government started this tariff reform in 1994. It has known since then that the new tariff was to take effect in January 1998—in less than two months. So why did the Minister of Finance involve parliamentarians only just recently? Bill C-11 was relegated to the Standing Committee on Industry—not even the finance committee, which is too busy with prebudget consultations—two weeks ago. Despite the fact that they have known since 1994 and that the bill was ready in 1996, they dumped it on the industry committee less than two weeks ago.
Bill C-11 is an important bill that requires a long, hard look. Unfortunately, the industry committee which has to study it because the finance committee was too busy met only twice to consider this technical bill. As you know, customs tariffs can be very complex, particularly when the bill contains 3,000 pages of schedules alone.
The members of the committee would have welcomed help and information with open arms to get this express examination done. The government often uses this pressure and delaying tactic to force the opposition to pass a technical and complex bill requiring long hours of examination. We have a right to question the time allocated to the committee as well as the need to have the legislation come into effect by January 1, 1998.
We have had it with this approach. It is not the first time that the government has acted this way. The most recent example was the multilateral agreement on investment. The subcommittee on international trade, trade disputes and investment was mandated by the Minister of International Trade to hear witnesses and produce a report by mid-December, that is to say before the Christmas break. The hearings started on November 4. Because of its tight deadline, the committee must sit three or four times a week to hear witnesses. As a result, not all those who wish to testify before the committee will have the opportunity to do so and those who do will have only a few minutes to express their views.
Does the Liberal government know what the expression “public consultations” really means or does it just use the words blindly? This government is showing contempt for what the people of Canada think and for the opposition. It is extremely difficult to do our job in the opposition under such circumstances. We often get the feeling that the government would rather we did not do our job, so it can get anything through and hide tons of technical papers.
For the Liberals, to consult means posting a document on the Internet, discussing with two or three people and expecting parliamentarians to trust them blindly. This government has never managed to win our trust and this is not about to change.
We should point out that, as usual with the Liberal government, public consultations were botched. There are groups that were not consulted, and those that were have not been heard properly. That was the case of the Canadian automotive industry. The Canadian vehicle manufacturers association, which represents Chrysler Canada, Ford Canada, Freightliner Canada, General Motors Canada, Navistar International Canada and Volvo Canada, repeatedly tried to voice its concerns to the finance minister and his officials.
The association testified before the Standing Committee on Industry, which studied Bill C-11. Witnesses informed committee members that they disagreed with the government's unilateral decision to eliminate customs duties on auto parts on January 1, 1996. At that time, the association was strongly opposed to such a move. It asked the committee to wait before confirming definitely the elimination of customs duties for auto parts in the new Customs Tariff.
The association told the committee that a study was being conducted on the automobile industry and that this study would deal with such matters as customs tariffs on parts and complete vehicles. The study is being conducted by Industry Canada, the Department of Finance and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. According to the information we have, a report should be released at the beginning of 1998.
There is another matter I would like to speak to. The Canadian Automobile Manufacturers Association is also strongly opposed to the elimination of customs duties on assembled vehicles. The Bloc Quebecois shares this concern. I asked a question on this matter last March, and the Minister of Finance answered by saying that he was studying the issue. In April 1997, following a question from the Liberal member from Windsor, the Minister of International Trade at that time made a commitment not to eliminate customs duties on assembled vehicles.
We hope the Liberal government will finally be able to keep a promise. The consequences of eliminating customs duties could be serious for the Canadian automobile industry. The Canadian government should be able to protect an industry when it needs it.
Representatives of the automobile industry were told that the Canadian government cannot wait for Industry Canada's report because Bill C-11 must come into effect on January 1, 1998.
We question the urgency of implementing the Customs Tariff, but it seems that the government will make every effort to pass this bill quickly. We are concerned about the automobile industry in Canada. That is why we are following closely Industry Canada's study to ensure that it is properly conducted and that its conclusions reflect the needs of Canada's automobile industry.
It should be noted that the January 1998 deadline is also a concern for the companies themselves, which will have to be ready to apply the new changes in a few weeks. When the committee reviewed this issue, Revenue officials announced that businesses would benefit from a six-month grace period before being penalized for non-compliance. We hope that the government will indeed be lenient toward these companies, because it prepared this new tariff to help them and not to hinder them.
For the benefit of Quebec businesses we will support Bill C-11, because the proposed standardization and streamlining of the Custom Tariff are necessary for both Quebec and Canada. For once, the government is making life simpler for Canadian businesses by helping them become more competitive at the international level. It must also be realized that, with the signing of international trade agreements, our tariff structure has become more complex, thus making Bill C-11 all the more appropriate.
The proposed changes in the bill include a consolidation of Canadian tariff obligations under the Canada—U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization, the Canada—Israel Free Trade Agreement and the Canada—Chile Free Trade Agreement. It is imperative that Canada fulfil its international obligations.
The Bloc Quebecois has always been in favour of globalization, unlike the Liberals who just recently realized the importance of free trade agreements. They are now converts. Unlike the Liberal government, however, we are not prepared to engage in trade at any cost. We believe in respect for human rights, labour standards and environmental standards. It is high time the Liberals learned to promote trade while also emphasizing respect for social and human rights.
Recently, the foreign affairs minister had a good opportunity to do so, but he did not. On September 5, 1997, a group of Canadian private businesses, including Alcan, announced the creation of an international code of ethics for Canadian companies. This voluntary code of ethics outlines the responsibilities incumbent on Canadian companies doing business abroad. It also recognizes the importance of human rights and prohibits child labour.
Following a study by the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade on small and medium size export businesses, we proposed that the government set up a code of ethics for Canadian companies doing business abroad. Far from acting like a leader, the Liberal government does not even require crown corporations to comply with the private sector's code of ethics. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister for International Trade are not even encouraging agencies that report to them to adopt the code of conduct. This is a disgrace, to say the least.
The president of the Export Development Corporation, better known as EDC, told the committee that EDC had not yet taken a decision at the time we were speaking as to whether or not it was going to respect the much discussed international code of conduct. With EDC lending large amounts to Canadian enterprises and not ensuring that they respect social and human rights in the countries in which they are investing, this is unacceptable.
The government, with the help of EDC, is strongly encouraging Canadian enterprises to invest in Colombia. Colombia is currently in the grip of what for us is an unthinkable crisis. The people of Colombia are being terrorized by paramilitary soldiers and guerillas. Colombian teachers have the world's highest mortality rate. Four out of every ten labour leaders in the world have been assassinated in Colombia. Torture and repeated violations of human rights are common occurrences. And yet the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister for International Trade are encouraging Canadian businesses to invest in Colombia. We hope that the Liberal government will finally understand the importance of respecting the social standards set out in international agreements. One step in the right direction would be to have Canadian enterprises respect the international code of conduct.
In conclusion, I remind members that the Bloc Quebecois will be voting in favour of Bill C-11, for the new tariff code benefits Canadian businesses and is consistent with respect for our international obligations.