moved that Bill C-248, an act to amend the Competition Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank all of the members of the House as well as those who, like myself, sat on the Sub-Committee on Private Members' Business of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
I would also like to take this opportunity to say that this is not the first time, that we have been given the consent of the House to discuss the issue of competition. It has happened on numerous occasions.
I am pleased to be here today to discuss Bill C-248, which in the previous parliament was known as Bill C-509. The bill deals with a substantive change to section 96 of the Competition Act. It is part and parcel of the efficiencies defence. There is the following exception in the Competition Act:
The Tribunal shall not make an order under section 92 if it finds that the merger or proposed merger in respect of which the application is made has brought about or is likely to bring about gains in efficiency that will be greater than, and will offset, the effects of any prevention or lessening of competition that will result or is likely to result from the merger or proposed merger and that the gains in efficiency would not likely be attained if the order were made.
These are the factors to be considered. On July 20, 1998, Superior Propane announced that it was about to formalize an agreement with ICG from Petro-Canada. Some three weeks later the competition commissioner commenced the inquiry into the transaction as is required under law for all merger reviews.
On December 1, 1998, the commissioner applied to the Competition Tribunal for an interim order to prevent the completion of the transaction. The tribunal rejected the application and the parties completed the transaction.
The commissioner filed to obtain a divestiture order from the tribunal under section 92 of the Competition Act that would have Superior divest itself of ICG. On December 11 the tribunal issued a hold separate order pending its decision.
In the period of time from December 11, 1998 to August 30, 2000 the tribunal announced in a rather interesting landmark precedent setting decision based on section 96 that it was dismissing the application brought forward by the competition commissioner under section 92.
It found that the merger was likely to prevent competition in Atlantic Canada and lessen competition substantially in many local markets and for national account customers. The majority of the tribunal dismissed the application brought by the competition commissioner pursuant to section 92 on the grounds that the respondents had been successful in demonstrating their efficiency defence in accordance with section 96.
The commissioner appealed that finding. I introduced the first bill on October 17. On April 4, 2001, on the request of the competition commissioner the Federal Court of Appeal allowed an appeal.
In the decision on that date the court ruled that the tribunal incorrectly applied the efficiency defence in section 96 of the Competition Act. It found that according to the tribunal the fact that the merged entity of Superior and ICG would eliminate all consumer choice and remove all competition in the propane supply market, as it is likely to do in Atlantic Canada, is not an effect that legally can be weighed under section 96 against the inefficiency gains in the merger.
Justice Evans looked at the decision and stated that such a conclusion seemed so at odds with the stated purpose of the act, namely to maintain and encourage competition and the statutory objectives to be achieved thereby, as to cast serious doubt on the correctness of the tribunal's interpretation.
The federal court effectively ordered that the matter be remitted to the tribunal for determination and in effect to rehear the case.
In his case the competition commissioner stated that the court agreed the efficiency defence was not intended to sanction mergers that result in a monopoly or a near monopoly without taking the impact on consumers into consideration. The issue was then appealed by Superior to the Supreme Court of Canada which literally refused to hear Superior's appeal.
We have an example of where private members' business and initiatives by the House have anticipated a concern in many respects. If we think for a moment about the potential impact this had on the farming community in western Canada, suppliers, producers and consumers in Atlantic Canada, and ultimately its devastating impact on the competitive process, the decision by members of parliament to correctly put this issue before the House of Commons and deem it votable was the correct one.
Last year I was responsible for assisting a number of Canadians through a very difficult winter when energy prices were soaring, much as a result of arbitraging the market.
We saw natural gas prices, home heating fuel, propane and the like all rising rather dramatically and suddenly, causing the government to try to take correct appropriate action to help stave off what would have otherwise been a perilous situation for many Canadians. I compliment the government for having taken that position. I believe it was the correct one at the time.
I also believe the House has a responsibility to ensure that our Competition Act is interpreted in such a way that the precedent set by the Competition Tribunal is clearly set aside by the House of Commons.
There may be members of parliament who would dare to suggest that this is rule made law and that somehow the supreme court or the federal court has made decisions. I assure the House that they have not come to any decision. We must ensure with respect to Bill C-248, if we are to qualify the efficiencies defence in the Competition Act, that those efficiencies and gains which occur when two entities merge together to create a substantial and possibly dangerous monopoly are found to be transferred either to customers or to consumers, not simply to individuals who happen to see a good deal, take over their competitor, shut their operations down and consolidate their monopoly.
This is the shortcoming of the way in which the act is written. The act also suggests incorrectly that it is possible to use a hypothetical economic efficiencies defence argument. Again there is no clarification. Parliament is being called upon to ensure that the clarification coming from those who understand the Competition Act as I do, because I have interpreted and worked in many facets of that act, also gives them an opportunity to have a say in terms of how the deliberation occurs.
I well understand there will be those who will make the argument that it is before the courts. I can assure my hon. colleagues it is not sub judice. It is not a criminal matter. This is before the Competition Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body which will have to hear it again. I suspect the decision may very well come ultimately some time in the month of January.
That does not preclude parliament because it ultimately wrote the Competition Act with the help of certain very powerful individuals in 1996.
I am interested in this issue because I also find that even our friends at the OECD make it very clear to many of us who have looked at the issue time and time again that using gains in efficiency is simply not acceptable.
As I try to find the appropriate document, it is very clear to me that other international bodies have already spoken very eloquently to the need to ensure that a merger request which results in and is designed to create an efficiency situation for a particular entity is not used in a way that does not see the value being returned to customers or consumers or, more important, to offend the competitive process.
OECD roundtable No. 4 competition policy on efficiency claims and mergers and other horizontal agreements states very clearly:
--there is a clear limit for the efficiency defence: the elimination of competition. Therefore, even if the parties can prove that an agreement would bring about high efficiency gains, these efficiencies are not able to justify an elimination of competition.
It says, in terms of the European act:
--85(3) provides for a kind of “sliding scale”: the more competition is restricted by means of co-operative agreement the higher the efficiency gains have to be in order to qualify for an exemption--up to the limit where effective competition is eliminated--
Given the OECD's position, given what we experienced last winter in a very cold winter for many, and given what the House has seen with respect to the right decision that was taken by a competition commissioner, I do not think we have much time for silly arguments that it should not be considered because we want to wait for the tribunal to ultimately make a decision.
It is not that we in the House want to rush judicial or quasi-judicial interpretations. The interpretation of the federal court not to hear this and the decision taken by the commission bears out the validity. This is a clear sign that members of the House should take inventory of what is currently before us and be able to point the Competition Act in a direction to ensure that above all it meets the goals and expectations of the Competition Act.
I want to point out to members of parliament that the federal court did point out the purpose and interpretation. Article 1.1 of the Competition Act states:
The purpose of this Act is to maintain and encourage competition in Canada in order to promote the efficiency and adaptability of the Canadian economy, in order to expand opportunities for Canadian participation in world markets while at the same time recognizing the role of foreign competition in Canada, in order to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises have an equitable opportunity to participate in the Canadian economy and in order to provide consumers with competitive prices and product choices.
A lot of us in the House have this great fear that if a large corporation says it must be bad, and it has a few jobs in the riding, we should ultimately ignore the plight of many of our small and medium sized enterprises and, more important, the very people who elect us, the consumers of this country.
We have every bit of evidence to demonstrate that there are shortcomings in the Competition Act. I will not get into the details as to who wrote the act. No doubt a select group of individuals may have had something to do with it. However I assure members that when it comes to the interpretation of this important regulatory body, which is there to protect a market oriented process, it is the plaything of a select group of individuals who, in their infinite wisdom and reason, may have another interest, and that is of course of their clients. In the House of Commons, we have a greater obligation to the broad public interests in this country.
That is why I say that the provisions in the bill make good sense. I urge other members to support them, not just to improve competition but also to assure our constituents that this parliament is alive, is capable of being effective and can easily react to problems peculiar to the times we live in.
That is why I am here, not just to debate the issue of competition. Obviously there are other members sitting on various committees. Generally speaking they recognize the need to supply our country and to anchor this bill in reality.
It is important to infuse a reality check in what we are doing here. I commend members of parliament who have worked with me on previous endeavours and initiatives such as Bill C-235 in the last parliament.
Mr. Speaker, you were part of the Liberal committee on gasoline pricing many years ago. On a very cold day in January you invited us to talk about the plight of individuals who could not get supplies or consumers who were having difficulties. I recall that it was in Timmins where people were forced to pay 10 cents or 15 cents more than people were in southern Ontario. Everybody knew that driving a truckful of gasoline from the Toronto refineries all the way up to Timmins could cost no more than a cent or two a litre more. Yet we were seeing various discrepancies of 10 cents to 15 cents and even more in remote areas.
That is only one segment. The media will also look at gasoline. I find it funny when my little four year old son, Bradley, calls me the gas man. I am not sure what he means by that. However, I assure hon. members that the concerns this side of the House has raised, and I see that members on the other side of the House are starting to raise similar concerns with respect to the Competition Act and gasoline, apply to a general pattern of concentration in Canada which is in need of review.
We know that concentration may be, of necessity, an inevitability of globalization. We have the authority and the ability to ensure that at the end of the process its effects can be minimized if consumer choice is removed or, worse, if consumers are forced to pay more for a product which in many respects is one that comes from under the ground or is harnessed by other means.
A nation that is abundant in so many resources finds itself in a bit of a contradiction where it may pay more for its products or have less choice than our competitors south of the border.
I do not want to go on at great length about that. The reason that parliament should now address the efficiency defence is important because a dangerous precedent has been set.
The tribunal said that it was okay to have a harmful, anti-competitive merger as long as one could prove that one could have some kind of efficiency gain. It did not say to whom that efficiency gain had to go, but presumably corporations are not stupid. They will put it in their own pocket. That will benefit those who are interested from a shareholder's perspective.
However that flies in the face of the intention of parliament in 1986. The parliament of today must ensure the enhancement of the competitive process whereby consumers and business can enjoy the fruits and labour of a competitive process. It is for these reasons that parliament has an obligation to ensure that it provides timely and effective responses to individuals who may from time to time find themselves without a voice.
I find it interesting and passing strange that in terms of this bill and other bills that come before the House on the issue of competition, and we see this in committees, the only individuals who tend to speak out against these things are people who are there on behalf of very large entities. The irony is that at many of the meetings I attend off Hill and on Hill as a guest speaker, an intervener or facilitator, I always see the same people.
One of the most important pieces of legislation including amendments and considerations tends to be decided by a handful of individuals. The same individuals probably have a lot to do with being able to attend various international competition conferences around the world. It is interesting because they tend to knock the lack of timing, effectiveness and efficiency of our competition bureau.
I would probably have some cause with that except I see it from their perspective. They are not getting their mergers quickly enough. They think that the process of enforcement in the writing of the guidelines should be toward their own ends.
I think that is a very dangerous thing for us to observe. In papers like the National Post and the Financial Post we always see articles written about how international bodies, which tend to be our own competition lawyers who work for some of the largest corporations in this country, are out slagging the bureau. They cannot do it locally, they have to do it internationally and hide behind that sort of shield.
Let us expose this for what it is. Let us begin to take back a piece of legislation that is important to all of us. It is a piece of legislation that is critical to the good functioning of our economy. We need to stand and become relevant as members of parliament to ensure that a handful of individuals is not going to be the gatekeeper of what is in that act. If they can get away with it in the Competition Act, I am sure there are possibilities for them to do it elsewhere in other pieces of legislation.
Just to qualify, that is not to suggest there is not an important reflection and review of the Competition Act. Again, it is very strange that I always see the same individuals coming forward. Members of parliament more often than not receive criticism from small business or consumers who are left with no choice and wonder why there is no effective enforcement of our act, real or perceived. We as members of parliament are their best shot. It is for that reason members of parliament have to take the time to write legislation that makes sense, that is reviewed within the context of the decisions that are made, but also responds effectively to the needs of Canadians.
This bill is the third such bill that has been made votable on the Competition Act which I have been able to bring forward. With the private right of access I am proposing with respect to Bill C-23, I believe we are now making headway. It is important to recognize that I applaud the government for allowing members to do this, but let this not stop in the House. Let us ensure that the Senate also understands its validity and impact on Canadians.
I believe we will have gone a long way not only to address the shortcomings that are clear and abundantly obvious to anyone, including our government and opposition, with respect to the Competition Act, but we will have done something to improve legislation generally in Canada and earn our own pay.