Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on Bill C-39. We in the Canadian Alliance support the objective of the bill and will be supporting it when it comes time to vote on second reading.
I am certainly not about to let the government off the hook on the issues in the bill simply because the issue that the bill addresses should have been addressed a long time ago. In some respects the government still does not go as far as it should in allowing the flexibility of the two companies to compete in a global economic environment. Only a Liberal in a Liberal government could stand in the House and say he or she is proud of the Liberal record when it comes to energy management.
The two acts originally placed restrictions on individual and foreign ownership when Petro-Canada and Cameco were first privatized. In my view the restrictions placed on these two companies were too restrictive, more restrictive than necessary. The government some time ago should have made the move that is being made today.
The intent of the bill is to increase the companies' access to domestic and foreign capital and enable greater flexibility in using share exchanges and asset pooling to make acquisitions and strategic alliances. Of course, if the government would do something about our pathetic Canadian dollar, we would not need this legislation even to the degree that still remains to protect these Canadian companies from international takeover. However that is another issue and a topic for debate on another day.
Having said that, I cannot help but wonder if the bill is to finally pave the way for the government to sell off its remaining 18% ownership, or 49.4 million shares of Petro-Canada. Certainly that is what appears to be going on here. Far be it from me to be suspect of the government's motives, but I suspect that is the intent of the bill.
The bill does a number of things to make room for the sale of Petro-Canada. It raises the limit on individual ownership of shares from 10% to 20%. The 25% limit on shares that can be owned collectively by non-residents is removed. It also provides the company with greater flexibility to manage its assets portfolio while maintaining a check against the company winding up its activities through an outright sale of all of its assets. What does all that mean?
Petro-Canada was created in 1975 as one of the mechanisms of the national energy program. The feelings of western Canada and those of us who represent ridings in that region are well documented when it comes to the national energy program. We never did buy the Liberal line that the national energy program was a vehicle for nationalist dreams and a ticket to energy self-sufficiency.
At the time Canadians were told that we had less than 20 years worth of recoverable oil reserves and that a high gasoline tax burden was justifiable to guarantee our future energy needs. When we look at where the oil industry in Canada currently stands, obviously our skepticism was appropriate. Twenty-five years later we know that those empty threats were little more than Liberal hogwash and a simple money grab and a flagrant breach of the principles of confederation by the federal government, a Liberal federal government.
We now have proven oil reserves that will supply Canada's energy needs well into the future. In fact, there is almost 400 years of recoverable reserves at current usage levels in the tar sands of northern Alberta alone. The Liberal government might have thought that it had fooled Canadians but we knew it was the federal government poking its rather large and unwelcome nose into the oil and gas industry, an intrusion that was totally unasked for, unappreciated and unnecessary.
Although the national energy program was eventually dismantled, Petro-Canada lived on, fed by taxpayer dollars without taxpayer approval. I might say that even today in this Liberal government so many years later, the concept of a made in Canada energy policy still exists. We heard reference to it just the other day on the debate on the reduction of gasoline taxes in Canada.
At one time perhaps it was of primary interest only in western Canada. I would urge Canadians on the Atlantic coast and in Canada's Arctic today to be just as wary of that kind of discussion.
The Liberals' presentation of the principle of a made in Canada energy policy perhaps had some validity when we look at the total context of Canada and its energy needs, but the folly and downfall of the program was that it was based simply on the resources of one or two provinces and took some $60 billion out of the economy of those provinces and gave nothing back in return.
In my opinion that is not the way to run a country. If we are going to depend on one part of the country for our resources and if we are going to take those resources in the interests of the whole country, then it behooves us to give back to the particular province or region something in return to equalize the contributions of the province or region. Certainly that did not happen.
Anger was a result of that program. The injustice of the program has resulted now in a commitment in the North American Free Trade Agreement which does not allow Canada in any sense to set its own energy policy independent of the North American market. I think it could have been handled much better and in the interest of the entire country, not just a small part of it.
It was not until after a federal election and the Liberals were defeated and the Tory government came to power that the national energy program was abandoned. Of course by that time it did not matter anymore because oil prices had collapsed and the idea of western Canada selling its oil resources below international prices was not an issue. It did not matter. Finally the concept of a made in Canada energy policy was abandoned.
Petro-Canada lived on after the national energy program and continues to live on today. It continues to remind us of just how foolish and inept the government was in setting up the program. Petro-Canada ended up as an oil company much like any other oil company in Canada, except that the taxpayers still own 18% of the company and are the single largest holder of stock in the company. No one but the government could own more than 10% of the company.
In 1994 I questioned why the government would not sell off its national oil company while the industry was strong and recoup some of the billions of taxpayer dollars that were used to create Petro-Canada in the first place. Even in 1994 I asked the government why it would not do something significant and use the revenue from the sale of Petro-Canada to reduce Canada's debt burden. That debt burden was in part because of the creation of Petro-Canada and the money that the government took from taxpayers to buy Petrofina and create Petro-Canada.
In 1995 the Liberal budget promised to totally privatize Petro-Canada, and we can see today how reliable Liberal budget promises are. Certainly this is no different than in many other areas. Indeed it is something we should consider over the coming weeks.
The fact remains that Petro-Canada cost Canadians over $5 billion to create. Petro-Canada has never provided any benefit to Canadians that could not have been provided by the private sector. When it was finally privatized, Petro-Canada started making a profit and competed effectively. Until the company was privatized, it continued to be a drain on the taxpayers' purse and never did make a profit until it was privatized, even with the restrictions that have continued to be placed on the company.
Governments, since Petro-Canada was established, have never had the courage to admit to Canadians that they will only be able to recover less than $2 billion of the original cost of $5 billion for the creation of Petro-Canada. If this bill is indeed the first step in the process of the government to sell off its remaining shares of Petro-Canada, my first response would be it is about time.
I am curious though about the timing of the bill. On Bay Street investors have driven up Petro-Canada's share prices in anticipation of a move by Ottawa to sell its shares. Today Petro-Canada shares are selling at $32.75 each. That is over a 46% gain just this year and there is potential for the price to go even higher. Bill C-39 will remove foreign ownership restrictions, allowing for an expanded market and certainly the potential of increased share prices.
Should the government sell its shares? It could optimistically find itself receiving $1.6 billion. That is $3.4 billion less than what Canadians originally paid for Petro-Canada, a business transaction anyone could identify as being a disaster, let alone standing and saying they were proud of their record. How could anyone be proud of a record like that?
However, the government could find itself in possession of $1.6 billion. What I would like to know is what it is going to do with the money? Since it was originally taxpayers' dollars that paid for Petro-Canada, I believe that the funds should be returned to the taxpayers in a direct fashion, rather than being dumped into the general revenue fund that the Liberal cronies can dip into whenever they feel inclined, whether it is for vote buying schemes in some parts of the country or for huge new national social programs that it commits to then later backs away from and leaves the provinces stuck with them. No, I would like to see the money going to debt reduction, again to reduce the debt that the creation of Petro-Canada had a role in making in the first place.
Perhaps it could be put into transportation improvements or maybe we could really be revolutionary and put the money toward lowering gas taxes. Lowering gas taxes, what an original idea. However, we must remember that these Liberals just two days ago voted against such a notion so I do not suppose they would be interested in returning taxpayer dollars directly to the taxpayers. No, in fact, that is far to clear-cut, simple, direct and responsible for this government to recognize.
Bill C-39 does a number of things that we support. Referring to Petro-Canada, it moves toward opening up ownership of the company to both national and international interests, while still ensuring that the majority of the company is still Canadian. The legislation clearly states that resident Canadians must still make up the majority of the board of directors. It also stipulates that the head office of the company must remain in Calgary. That is a curious feature of a number of bills which privatized crown corporations. I have always wonder why that was necessary.
It would only make sense for the head office of Petro-Canada to remain in Calgary because that is the centre of their operation. As the House may recall, when CN was privatized the head office had to remain in a certain particular city. When Air Canada was privatized the head office also had to stay in a particular city. I have trouble understanding what the motivation for that is, except it has to be politically motivated. I tend to be a bit cynical after awhile.
The Canadian Alliance supports the removal of restrictions upon Canadian businesses to allow for both domestic and foreign investing. We expect to see that Petro-Canada, once it is no longer manipulated by government, will continue to show profits and growth.
Of course, Bill C-39 does not only address issues surrounding Petro-Canada, although that is where my primary interest is, as members might have noticed. It also addresses relating to the sale of shares in Cameco, Canada's biggest uranium producer. Canada's Kyoto commitments have increased the need for Canada to find green energy and certainly nuclear energy is one of the options that is being considered. Our Prime Minister speaks of it often.
I do not wish to get into the debate at this point on the merits or lack thereof of nuclear energy, but the fact remains that uranium is a resource that should nuclear energy be a factor in the world's efforts to reduce CO2 levels will become a very important resource.
The bill raises foreign and individual ownership limits for Cameco. Individual non-resident ownership will increase from 5% to 15% and the limit on the total amount of non-resident ownership of shares will increase from 20% to 25%. I am pleased to see that the legislation still is mindful of the possible consequences of high levels of foreign ownership of uranium resources. In fact, the lower limits on Cameco shares reflect across the board government restrictions on foreign activity in uranium mining. While the Canadian Alliance is all for Canadian businesses having all the opportunities to succeed, we must also be conscious of the need to keep such potentially volatile resources within Canadian control.
In effect, the bill allows for greater flexibility in the selling of shares in Canadian companies and I can certainly support that effort. It allows those companies the freedom to raise capital and to prosper and grow to the maximum that their ability and their resource will allow.
As I have already stated, if this legislation leads to the government finally selling off its remaining shares of Petro-Canada, it would be legislation that is long overdue.
I guess we will just have to wait and see if the sale of Petro-Canada becomes another pre-election goodie, and if so, exactly how much the Liberals think Canadians have forgotten regarding the original purpose of Petro-Canada and the amount of taxpayers' dollars that went into establishing the company which were never and will never be recovered from the sale.
As I said, essentially we will be supporting the bill. It is a step in the right direction. It is the right thing to do. It is better late than never. We will be voting in favour of the bill as it moves through the House of Commons.