I am very pleased that we have the opportunity today to debate, and eventually to express ourselves formally in a vote, on a matter of concern to many: the price of gasoline, which has reached a record high.
This is a crisis that has gone on for several months, and the federal government has still done nothing, hoping that time would be on its side and the crisis would eventually just evaporate. The only action the federal government has taken so far, moreover, in connection with fuel prices, has been to commission a study from the Conference Board, the findings of which will be known early next year.
We know very well that when they want to do nothing, this is the best approach. They commission a study with findings to come out a long way into the future. Until such time, the answer can be given “We are looking into the matter”.
I am going to read the text of the motion so that there will be a clear understanding of what we are discussing. It reads as follows:
That given the record increases in the price of gasoline and home and diesel fuel, severely hurting Canadian consumers, truck drivers and businesses, and given the recent promise by the Minister of Finance to reduce taxes, this House call upon the government to give relief on fuel taxes, including repealing the increase in gasoline excise tax introduced as a temporary deficit elimination measure in 1995 and implementing the 1998 recommendation of the Liberal Caucus committee on gasoline pricing in Canada to remove the double taxation of the GST.
I would like to say immediately that we in the Bloc Quebecois will support this motion. We will vote in favour of it. It will give consumers a bit of a break. However, we would like more than that. I will indicate the action we want taken, but at least this is a step in the right direction. This is why we will support the motion.
We would have liked the government to suspend the excise tax of ten cents a litre entirely because of the exceptional nature of the current crisis.
The proposal on the table will permanently reduce the cost of gasoline by three or four cents, according to the cost of gasoline per barrel. This is one of its strong points. We would like the cost to be reduced immediately by ten cents a litre to make it substantial and to enable consumers to say the next morning “Listen, we are paying ten cents less”.
I know that the Liberals will hide behind another approach saying “We are not sure the consumers will really benefit” and the like. If that is so, when they say they are not going to lower the tax by two or three cents because the consumer will not benefit, they are admitting that healthy competition does not exist in the industry. If there were healthy competition, it would be advantageous for one of the competitors to lower his price right away in order to get part of the market. If that player and all the players do not do it collectively, if there is no collusion in that industry, there are at least serious flaws from in terms of competition.
We are saying that this is perhaps a possibility and we are convinced that there are flaws in terms of competition. This is why we want a more substantial reduction than 3 cents per litre. But the motion is all about a permanent measure. The motion of the Canadian Alliance Party reads “including”. That does not exclude other measures. We are still in favour of suspending the excise tax until the price of the barrel of oil gets back to a much more acceptable level, and until the price of gasoline gets back to a more affordable level.
Why are we talking about a temporary reduction? It is of course because there are all sorts of issues related to this question, including environmental issues and, also, our taxation level compared to levels elsewhere. We are not ignoring that, but we want to send a clear message to consumers that we will help them, that it is not true that all the tax reductions granted to them in the last budgets will all be absorbed by the increase in energy prices.
Gasoline is one thing. What is less obvious but even more dramatic is the situation of all those who use fuel to heat their homes. Last winter, heating bills doubled. This winter, things will not get any better. It is often low or middle income people who use such heating systems and they are hit hard. To have to pay twice as much in heating costs in January and February when one is already on a very tight budget is a real nightmare. It is definitely not easy. There should also be special measures to help these people out so that the present crisis does not hit them too hard.
We on this side have four proposals. Obviously, we want a temporary suspension of the 10 cent a litre excise tax immediately. That is very important.
Second, we want to talk about the industry's practices. I will elaborate on this—I will come back to it and develop it further—to show that there should be special measures to improve competitive practices in this industry.
We also want to see investment in alternative energies. We should not find ourselves with every successive crisis—this is not the first time there has been a fuel crisis, and at some point we will have to learn—back in the same situation.
We are very dependent on petroleum products. There are areas in which alternatives are emerging. But the power of the petroleum industry, which has no interest in seeing alternatives developed, makes funding research difficult in these sectors. Without public funding to develop alternative energies, the obstacles to their becoming a reality and benefiting consumers are obviously considerable.
I would like to come back to competition. The federal government is responsible for this issue. There is competition legislation. It is in the government's court. The government does not have to wait for Tom, Dick or Harry, the provinces, its neighbour or the international community. It has responsibility for the competition laws.
I have here a report produced in 1998 by a committee of the Liberal Party that looked at the gasoline issue. We are not talking prehistory.
This report pointed out repeatedly that there were many shortcomings in the competitive practices of this industry. It even said at one point that the Canadian market is a bonanza for petroleum producers. A very well done study also showed that our average gas price before taxes is 4 or 5 cents higher than in comparable markets in the United States.
Why is it that we always pay more here for our petroleum products, yet the federal government does nothing but sit on its hands? Competition issues were indeed looked at a little, but no measures with any clout have ever been forthcoming to remedy what is going on.
How, for example, can it be possible for three companies, which are refiners, distributors and retailers all at the same time, to control 75% of wholesale sales? The market is dominated by only a few players, who control the situation. They have a huge ability to influence prices. Successful operation is not easy when the station across the street buys its gas from the same supplier.
To take an example, and I do not want to name anyone in particular, we have an independent right across the street from an Esso, and they both buy from the same refinery. It is understandable that it is not easy to do business when you have the people who sell you your gas operating right across the street.
The Liberal's recommendations contained some very interesting points. For example, might it not be worthwhile to separate refining and retail sales, so that one company could not do both?
There is nothing socialistic about this. It is already in place in several of the American states. It is designed to ensure competition at both levels: refinery and sales. The best way to do so is to not allow companies to be so vertically integrated and to control virtually the entire market, including sales to their competitors, that such a situation can result.
This fascinates me. I have studied economics and if I go back to school, I will study the oil companies. Why is the price always the same at the retailers? Why is the price always the same at Esso, Ultramar and Petro Canada? Why does one of the businesses not take a little initiative and edge out the others by one or two cents for a few months as the result of discovering better technology or coming up with a better marketing strategy? Why does no company ever stand out from the others?
This is a mystery to me. Why, in a competitive market, does no company ever take the lead, other than temporarily? Why does no company make the necessary adjustments and finally lower its price? This indicates clearly that there is no healthy competition in the industry.
It is a good thing to lower taxes, but it is a temporary and exceptional measure. We must not, however, lose sight of the fact that there are problems in this industry.
I know that some members on the other side of the House agree with this. I am looking forward to seeing how they will vote when the time comes. I know that on the other side of the House, if they stick by their recommendations, there will have to be amendments so that a few players will no longer have such sway over the Canadian petroleum market. This is an element of competition the government can work on.
I wish we would act quickly, and not wait for the Conference Board study, but to have a very clear debate or have the minister refer the whole matter immediately to committee in order to consider the appropriateness of separating the activities of retailing and refining.
This does not mean that refiners could no longer retail their products, but they could have, for example, a limited percentage of shares.
If Imperial Oil wants to retail its products, it could perhaps hold a certain percentage of shares, up to a limit of, say, 15%, 20% or 25%. This is already done in other areas. It is done in the banking sector. It is done elsewhere to avoid having some people control the market. It could also be done in the gasoline industry.
A refiner marketer could be allowed to have a limited interest. It could also be prohibited from getting into the retail business. Other players would then take over, thus creating greater competition.
I want to be clear. We are not saying that people who own or manage a gas station in their community are not doing their best to be competitive. However, given the price they pay refiners for gasoline, they have little leeway. Very often, they are told what price to sell their gasoline; they get a call, saying “Starting this morning, this is what the price will be”. This is how it works.
These people are not very vocal, because they are in business. But when we talk to people who used to be in business but no longer are, we realize that some very dubious practices exist in some cases. These practices do not comply with the spirit of the Competition Act, which seeks to protect consumers.
Some interesting possibilities were raised by the Liberals themselves—again, and I am not afraid to say so—in a good report that was released. The problem is not the quality of the report, but the will to implement it. A lot of good work has gone into it.
A large part of the study took place in Ontario. Not much time was spent in Quebec. It would have been nice if they had spent some time in Quebec, but the situation is very similar. The dynamics are the same. Now, the government's knee-jerk reaction is to say that this is an international issue.
We are not interested in demagoguery. We know that the price of a barrel of oil dropped to $10 or $12 and has just soared to $35 or $37, or thereabouts, in recent days. We are all aware of this. We know that this accounts for much of the price hike.
But I would like someone to explain something to me. Normally, when you have a business and the price of whatever you sell keeps going up—as we have seen with gasoline—consumers try to cut back a bit, and the business is forced to lower its profits to protect its share of the market. This is not the right context in which to go after greater profits. How is it then that, at the same time as such a serious crisis, with consumers ultra-sensitive to prices, we see the oil companies making record profits? This is very disturbing.
I realize that some companies are involved in direct activities, meaning that they make more money if the price per barrel goes up, but I would like to know where this money comes from. What were the retail profits compared to the preceding quarter or the last one or two years?
These are comprehensive and very complex financial statements. It is not possible to determine how they made this money. Is it just the increase in a barrel of oil? Is it more than that? Are we not still paying a few cents a litre too many at the pump?
I support the Canadian Alliance motion, with one exception: it completely ignores the competition angle. I agree that there should be temporary tax relief, but sight should not be lost of the fact that there are ongoing problems in the industry.
The Canadian Alliance's proposal is to permanently lower prices, in a competitive market, by about three cents a litre. Comparing the American market, healthy competition could have the same effect, and permanently. A permanent combination of the two measures in a good competitive market could bring prices down by 7 or 8 cents a litre.
This raises some questions. Do we want to stimulate sales of a product we know has an environmental impact? This raises another issue relating to what I was saying earlier: we must invest in alternative energies, because our dependency on petroleum products must be reduced.
The omission, or what we would have liked to have seen from the Canadian Alliance as far as competition is concerned, is quite understandable. We know where the oil patch is located. It does not take much scrutiny of a map of Canada to realize that Alberta does not have much to complain about as far as the price of a barrel of oil is concerned. This is understandable, for it means money in the pockets of their fellow citizens. Human nature being what it is, we would probably have the same reflex, but a broader perspective is needed.
Some Liberals, but I will not name names, will have to stand and be counted when this motion is put to a vote. People cannot say they are going to vote it down because it is insufficient. We have to start somewhere, and this is a step in the right direction.
One great advantage of lowering taxes will be the very strong pressure that doing so will exert on the government to improve the situation and perhaps recover this money.
We wanted to give it a stronger and temporary character because the government would perhaps say “I suspended my ten cent excise tax. It brings in nearly $400 billion a month. Perhaps if I were to make competition stronger it would be better to set profits at four or five cents a litre and for us to then take four or five cents in excise tax”. That might be a good thing. It would be to the government's advantage in economic and financial terms if it considered this issue with a little greater urgency.
In European countries, there has been much unrest. We must not think the same thing will not happen here too. The price per barrel of oil is very high despite the recent decision by the OPEC countries. There is talk of a threatened traffic tie-up by the Ontario association of truckers tomorrow. The economy is relatively strong. The truckers were busy working this summer.
In the fall, the economy always slows down a bit. When they have a little more time available and they let off a little steam and they try to make their truck payment and so on, some people will, when they are not carrying merchandise, make themselves heard.
There are others too. I am thinking, for example, about farmers over the summer. This is not the best time for demonstrations. The government should not be surprised, though, if the situation gets worse. One simply has to talk to people to realize that the public is greatly concerned by the price of gasoline. People are asking the government to take action at two levels: by lowering the tax and by making the oil industry accountable.
Why is it—there are a lot of unanswered questions but I raise them nevertheless—that last spring we had days where—the figures here are only indicative of the situation, but the differences reflect the facts—gasoline sold at 65.9 cents in the morning, at 72.9 cents in the afternoon, and then at 68.9 cents the next morning? During that time, the price of the barrel of oil remained stable. Why is it that there were such strong fluctuations over such short periods? Why is it that, at a time when market conditions were stable, the price of gasoline sometimes fluctuated by as much as 10% in a single day?
Oil companies must be made accountable. I would like to see them come before us to explain in detail the profits they make at the retail level. They can tell us anything they want, because we cannot check the facts. That is the problem. We should pass a better Competition Act and set up a more effective competition bureau with a special mandate.
We also asked for such a mandate for the competition bureau, with regard to the oil industry. We should dangle a sword of Damocles over the head of the oil industry, we should make it feel some pressure and we should constantly monitor it to keep it in the straight and narrow. It takes exceptional measures to follow up on a regular basis, to examine the financial statements of oil companies, to make them accountable, to not always be the ones bearing the burden of proof but to make them accountable sometimes. I think such measures would help improve the situation.
In conclusion, because my time is running out, we will support this motion which, I hope, will be agreed to. It would be better to suspend collection of the full excise tax, and we continue to ask for such a measure. But the motion of the Canadian Alliance does not exclude that and we will support it.
We want the government to wake up and to assume its responsibilities. There are competition problems within the industry. There comes a time when the government must stop burying its head in the sand and must stop telling itself that all the decisions are made elsewhere, that the international situation is to be blamed or that it is the provinces' fault. The federal government has responsibilities and it has the financial means and the legal authority. Let us see it use them.