Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate today on Bill C-27, an act respecting airport authorities and other airportoperators and amending other acts.
As the member for Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel and as transportation critic, I had the opportunity to review the legislation on airport authorities, since the Mirabel airport is managed by an airport authority called ADM, Aéroports de Montréal.
When a minister or other member of the Liberal Party introduces a bill as a means to have more transparency, we obviously always look at these nice proposals with an open mind.
In Mirabel, we had quite an exercise in transparency with ADM. All reporters and all Quebeckers who have followed the Mirabel airport saga know that Aéroports de Montréal did not operate with a great concern for transparency.
We sometimes use harsh words out of frustration with certain situations. I will try to explain the position of the residents of the Basses-Laurentides area concerning what could have been the best chance for economic development in this region of Quebec.
In 1966, when the federal government decided to replace Dorval airport, which was built in 1941, it really wanted to put Quebec back on the map. I should remind members that, at the time, Montreal was the only international gateway into Canada. Building a brand new airport was obviously indicative of a great desire to open our door to the world.
And it was not just any kind of airport. At the time, the government expropriated 93,000 acres of land, which was 10 times the size of the largest airport in the world and 27 times the size of Dorval airport. That was the goal of the Liberal government of the day.
Since 1966, or over the last forty and some years, the Liberal Party has been in power two thirds of the time. It is the Liberal Party that launched this project and set this goal. There were periods when the Conservatives were in office but, in the end, this is part of the history of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Giving Quebec a giant airport, the largest in the world, is a very important goal. Now we must see what the goal was and what the reality is today. Right now, Mirabel airport still sits on 15,000 acres of land, which is still four times the size of Dorval airport.
However, this international airport deals with only one air carrier, Air Transat, which is quite happy. In the Lower Laurentians, we are very glad that Air Transit is still doing business in Mirabel. ADM has announced that in the fall of 2003 or the spring of 2004 at the latest, international flights or air passenger services will be a thing of the past at Mirabel airport.
As you know, that is the harsh reality we have to face. Things happen, like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 or SARS which is currently affecting some airports, but ADM and the federal government took their decision well before air carriers throughout Canada started having problems.
Of course, that brings us to the operations of the infamous airport authorities, which have been a problem. Since 1988, we have been dealing with what is now called a non-profit corporation. First, there was SOPRAM, which was created in 1988 but was replaced in 1992 by Aéroports de Montréal, the current organization that this new bill will now change.
Non-profit organizations are currently managing equipment belonging to the people of Quebec and Canada and also funds. Let me go over some of the provisions of this bill to try to explain how it is possible to close down an airport that was inaugurated only in 1975 while investing in another airport, Dorval. At this point in time, over $800 million of public money has been invested. When renovations started at Dorval, we were told that they would cost $200 million at the very most. Believe it or not, the costs have now reached $800 million. Based on the most recent estimates, to properly upgrade Dorval for the new millennium, we will need to invest another $1.2 billion in the airport and the surrounding road infrastructure. That is $2 billion that the federal government will have invested in a airport that should have been replaced back in 1966, when Dorval and all of its facilities were felt to be obsolete.
However, today, this airport is being renovated but there are constraints. Indeed, Dorval is an airport in the middle of a city, with time constraints. Flights must not take place after 11 p.m. So there are time constraints. When Mirabel airport is closed, this will be the only airport capable of receiving passengers in the metropolitan area of Montreal. Of course, this will create constraints for airlines.
This is a matter of choice. When we put the question directly to the minister, to all the representatives, to Liberal members from Quebec, they say: “We will go back to Mirabel one day”. Why? Because Mirabel airport is located outside Montreal. The runways have been laid out so as not to disturb the urban populations. It is a highly secure airport. Considering September 11, 2001, we never want to experience another plane crash in an urban area. Thus, everything should have been taken into account, particularly since September 11, 2001, to try to keep Mirabel airport. On the contrary, a destruction operation started in 1992—in fact, in 1988—but more specifically since the creation of the new ADM. This destruction operation will continue, of course, because passenger services will disappear, as I said earlier, by January 2004 at the latest.
Besides, we are still being told that Mirabel is an international airport. Of course, people were up in arms. Not only was there land flipping, but proceedings were launched by the municipality of Mirabel and all social and economic stakeholders. Millions of dollars were spent. It was ruled that the lease had been respected , since ADM had an obligation to maintain an international airport.
Clause 6 of this brand new bill that has not yet been passed says:
Nothing in this Act derogates from the rights and obligations under a lease of an airport granted by any person, including Her Majesty in right of Canada, to an airport operator, as the lease read on the coming into force of this section, except to the extent that those rights and obligations are inconsistent with this Act.
That means that a lease takes precedence over this bill. Obviously, I would like to agree with the content of the bill, but I have to live with the situation in Mirabel. People are living with the situation in the Lower Laurentians in West Quebec. The airport authority there is going to eliminate passenger traffic, insisting it is still operating an international airport, and the government and the minister will say “Yes, we consider this to be an international airport”. An international airport without passengers is hard to swallow.
What is really going to happen in the industry? Will legal proceedings be taken again against ADM to compel it to abide by the lease? As long as the government is not willing to rein in these organizations that are claiming to be non profit, it will not work.
The government has quite the defence, of course. I am saying this for the benefit of Quebeckers who are listening to us; I will sum up how the airport authority board is set up. It is made up of between 11 and 15 members, their number being set in the bylaws.
In the case of the Montreal airport authority there are 15 appointed board members. The government is saying that the management of airports is being turned over to the industry. Out of these 15 appointed board members, only one is from the Lower Laurentians and the Mirabel area. As far as the other 14 are concerned, 11 come from the Island of Montreal, one from Laval and two from the South Shore.
Once again, we are told that the management is local. Obviously, the managers are not coming from Mirabel airport. When the time comes to make big decisions, it is obviously easy to reach a consensus around the Montreal airport board table.
This bill is telling us there will be greater transparency, but it confirms that independent bodies will manage assets. I will go even further than that. Clause 45 says:
An airport authority is not an agent of Her Majesty in right of Canada.
So it is not only non-profit organizations managing the government's assets. Clearly, the land and buildings belong to the federal government. They belong to us all because we all pay taxes in this country. The assets are managed by independent agencies that, furthermore, are not agents of Her Majesty in right of Canada.
So, why include this provision? It is so that the minister can say, in the House, in response to questions from the opposition about the actions of airport authorities: “It is not my responsibility. Those people do not report to the federal government”.
We had a terrible time with this in the Lower Laurentians and at Mirabel. We are going to go through this again. In fact, ADM is holding its annual general meeting on May 8. According to my sources, I am almost certain that ADM will announce the complete shutdown of the airport and will expect its board to adopt, next Thursday, a resolution to launch an international call for tenders for the use of the airport, hotel and administrative offices, excluding tenders related to running an airport. In other words, ADM wants to see if the airport, hotel and administrative offices can be converted into something other than an airport. That is the goal, although it says it will respect the lease and that this will remain an international airport, because Mirabel still offers cargo operations.
I do not know how members with international airports in their ridings would feel if an airport authority candidly told them that it did not want to launch an international tender call for aviation operations, because it was too afraid of the competition. There are people interested in using this site for civil aviation and passenger transportation. So, ADM does not want to manage it.
The hotel has been closed since last summer. There have been at least six potential buyers and ADM has said publicly, “We operate airports; we are not hotel managers”. The hotel belongs to the federal government. In the lease, there is a clause stipulating that they must use the buildings and infrastructure for the purposes for which they were entrusted. That is a clause in the lease.
The hotel was entrusted to be operated. Today, they can contravene the lease with the Minister of Transport's approval, since he responded here in the House that it was an independent organization and it could do what it wanted. He trusted ADM because ADM has the obligation to maintain an airport of international calibre.
Those who know anything about aviation predict that three years from now even the cargo sector will have left Mirabel. The airport will cease to be. In this bill, once ADM has been given all of the powers it needs to reach its objectives, how will it be possible to save Mirabel?
It will be impossible. The government should modify the lease and allow ADM to close Mirabel airport.
Obviously, there would be a debate. How would the government do it? It would wait until the election and make the change in the first year of its new mandate, so that voters forget about it. Governments always operate in the same old ways. When you follow things and see how good the Liberal government is at controlling information, you can predict how people will react. We know the important stuff occurs before the election and a month or two after. Then it comes around again three and a half or four years later.
Polling indicates—and you may have had the opportunity to see some polls—that attitudes toward politicians in Quebec differ a great deal from those of the rest of Canada, where the central governments are chosen by the people, whereas in Quebec, it is the complete opposite. Local governments are the ones that are most loved by Quebeckers. That is traditional and probably historic. We could always take a closer look at what has happened.
Yet the Liberal government is fully aware that, in Quebec, the public is far less concerned about federal government operations and this therefore allows the feds to stir up great hopes as it did with Mirabel. It created a huge potential for employment and now it is going to be closed down completely.
There cannot even be any predictions because as we speak, believe it or not, Mirabel, the biggest airport in Canada, as far as area goes, still has no development plan. Even with the lease requirement of the provision of a master plan and a development plan by 1998, there is still none, yet they say there is a master plan.
It is so complex, but I can tell you that they do not know, at this time, what they are going to do with Mirabel. Never mind whether one calls it a master plan, a development plan or a land use plan, I can tell you they have no idea. If they are asked the question tomorrow, they will say they do not know what they will do with Mirabel.
One thing they do know: passenger flights are going to disappear and they will try to keep the freight for the moment, despite what the reports are saying.
Leafing through the bill, I must express my resentment of it, despite its possible good intentions. We are told, of course, that the role of an airport operator is to give equitable access to its facilities. Clause 24 reads:
Every airport authority and other airport operator must provide to all air carriers who operate or wish to operate aircraft on their airport, equitable access to the facilities or air terminal building—
Having spoken with executives of Air Transat, which is at Mirabel, I can tell you that they are still interested in remaining there. They want to stay, but of course the approach that has been taken by ADM and the company to get it out of Mirabel will leave them without the same access to facilities at the same price. There have been threats along the lines of “You are the only ones flying out of this airport, so we will charge all costs to you”. This will make it more expensive than flying out of Montreal. So there have been threats.
Even though the carrier has a lease with obligations, even though, legally, it could go to court and try to protect its rights, things are not easy for an operator in such a situation, with all the complexities of aviation today.
In addition, even though the Government of Canada is the owner, it is clear that ADM acts as the landlord, managing the facilities, negotiating with the airlines and, in the end, saying to them, “If you do not move to Dorval, you will have big problems in the future. We will send you bills and you will be fighting them in court”. That battle will last 15 years, until their lease runs out.
Here is a company that provides very good service, that is quite satisfied to be at Mirabel, and which has another 15 years on its lease, but, under pressure from ADM, will probably sign a new agreement to move to Dorval, if it has not yet already done so as we speak. Nobody is supposed to talk about it; it all has to be done oh so nicely and under a cloak of secrecy. No pressure must be put on ADM. No one should say anything, because that might reflect badly on the company and on operations.
Finally, one thing I know is that it is bad for the entire population of the Lower Laurentians and West Quebec. If there had been transfers to other airports in Quebec, I would have said, “That is not so bad”. The problem is that the shift is towards Toronto and Ottawa. That is a fact.
One problem is that those who manage the Montreal airports have not understood that they are not helping Quebec; they are helping the rest of Canada. That is what they are doing. They are helping the Ottawa airport, which has been expanded, and that is good for Ottawa. They are helping Toronto, which has picked up all the transferred flights, and now finds itself the new gateway into Canada.
All this has been to Quebec's detriment, and it has been done with the full knowledge of all the federal Liberal members from Quebec and all the Conservative members at the time. They watched as all this happened. Obviously—I say it again—the Liberal members were especially involved, since they were in power for more than two thirds of the last 40 years while the Mirabel saga was unfolding.
Of course, when we see concern for transparency in a bill and when we hear the minister say, in his press conference on Bill C-27, that the government will stop having airports managed by organizations that do it behind closed doors, we cannot imagine how things can be different. These organizations have been doing everything behind closed doors since they were created. I cannot see how they could show any concern for transparency. It will be very hard.
Moreover, passengers who use Mirabel airport are required to pay enormous fees to repair Dorval airport. All those who have flown from Mirabel airport over the last eight years, since the fees were implemented, have been paying for the renovations at Dorval airport. Imagine that. I would not say it is Machiavellian, but close. That is the way things are done. People are told that they will have better services. The authority took the money and renovated Dorval airport.
Everything is done in secrecy. The government tells anyone with whom it deals not to say anything, that it will make an announcement. Of course, at the general meeting that will take place on May 8, there will be a big press conference and we will all be handed a done deal. We will not have the opportunity to object and to criticize; the decision will already have been made.
Why? Because, as I mentioned earlier, these non-profit organizations are not accountable to the federal government. They are completely independent and I should add that they are also financially self-sufficient. They are given the power they need to find money. It is as simple as that.
In fact, clause 46(3) reads as follows:
An airport authority may issue a bond ordebenture or other evidence of indebtedness.
And that is done, of course, without any endorsement from the federal government, but rather on the sole basis of expected revenues, which are the projected revenue from the airport improvement fees collected from the users, because that is the beauty of all this. These people have clients. They go to the banks and say “Look”. And they end up with the same credit rating as any Crown corporation and they can contract loans. During all that time, nobody is held accountable. It is a very profitable deal for those who charge interest rates. There is no risk involved. The money is not used to run deficits. Have you any idea how far a director can go? Some people have heard directors say “If things do not work out, the federal government can take the airport back.” It is as simple as that. Of course, there are the buildings, the land, the runways, the hotel. All of that belongs to the federal government. The directors only manage the buildings and have the duty, as I said before, to maintain two international airports.
I find that quite incredible, which is why I would like to go over clause 6 one more time.
Nothing in this Act derogates from the rights and obligations under a lease of an airport—
This provision puts the lease above the bill. It has always been that way. They have never upheld the law. They have always had their own way. The minister has always said “Yes, you are doing good; everything is going well, it is up to you. We will not get involved in what you are doing”. Why? Because it is politically dangerous and might even be politically devastating. That is how governments behave nowadays. Discussions are held and then the onus is put on independent organizations who are subjected to incredible political pressure.
The problem is that, often, these are people who are appointed, because there are representatives appointed by the government. In this case, we will have an appointment process that is well indicated in the legislation. Yes, these are representatives of the area, appointed by organizations in the area, but the fact is that Montreal's north shore and the Basses-Laurentides, excluding Laval, will only have one representative. It is not the new board and the new process that the bill is proposing that will change anything.
For us, ADM has already changed. Last year, the type of board contained in this bill was introduced. For all those who thought that, with this new bill, a new way of operating or appointing directors would be introduced, it is too late. In Quebec, things were going so bad that everyone had to get involved to get rid of the old directors, among others, the old chief executive officer. The process was changed and we have the new board of directors.
Bill C-27 is already in force. The Mirabel area, the Basses-Laurentides and Montreal's north shore, excluding Laval, only have one representative out of 15 members of the board. Consequently, the future is not looking good.
In this bill, there are airport authorities. I see that several airports are jointly managed. But Ottawa and Halifax manage only one airport. I even dare to dream that we could perhaps think about having an airport authority for Mirabel and one for Dorval. We could perhaps abolish ADM, which is managing two airports, but which is bleeding one dry to try to make the other one survive. Perhaps we will see this one day. Perhaps the Bloc Quebecois will introduce a bill or an amendment to this bill. Except that it would really take the will of the people to make this happen.
I know perfectly well that it will not happen since I asked the question to ADM officials. That is why they will put out an international call for tenders for the terminal, the hotel and the administrative buildings. When I talk about an international call for tenders, it is to find a new vocation for the property. They will look at the international level to see what someone could do with an empty hotel, an empty administrative centre and an empty terminal, apart from operating a passenger airport, which any interested party will be told they cannot do.
That is the decision that will be made, believe it or not. I am preparing a nice question to ask of the minister the next day or a few days later. I will ask him if he thinks that ADM's position respects the terms of the lease. He will certainly answer that, yes, it still is an international airport because of the freight operations. Some international airports rely solely on freight.
But those who know the history of air transportation know that the newer passenger aircraft have more and more space in the cargo hold for the transportation of goods. That is how airlines make flights profitable, which allows them to reduce fares for passengers. Aircraft are made bigger so they can carry more cargo. As a result, cargo planes are disappearing, slowly but surely, in favour of bigger passenger planes. That is a fact.
But once again, they think people on Montreal's north shore or in the Basses-Laurentides and all over Quebec do not understand how the industry works. They are telling them, “Look, you have a nice cargo airport, which is going to be developed and remain an international airport”.
No matter how much we hope, how much we read into bills such as this one, how much we try to be encouraged and to encourage our fellow citizens, this is not the first time the federal government slaps the Basses-Laurentides in the face.
Of course, my colleague from Terrebonne—Blainville can attest to it. A decision was made to close the GM plant in Boisbriand. Ontario finally managed to eliminate car manufacturing in the rest of Canada and maintain it in the province. We know full well that it is the minister in charge of Canada's economic development in Quebec's regions, the current justice minister, who announced after visiting Detroit and meeting with the executives at GM Canada that he had no choice and that the GM plant in Boisbriand had to be shut down.
Mirabel international airport will be closed to passenger traffic. What it will become will be announced in a matter of months or days. It is tough to be repeatedly slapped in the face by the federal government.
It is not true that the federal government cannot act; however, it is true it does not want to act. That is the truth. Of course, Bill C-27 is a perfect example. I can predict that even before Bill C-27 is passed, Mirabel airport will be closed to passenger traffic. That is what is going to happen. This bill will be dragged through the House long enough so that the government will not have to force ADM to abide by this new bill, especially section 6 that would compel it to respect the terms of the lease and not to do anything that would be contrary to the lease since it has precedence over the bill. That is what will happen. ADM is in a hurry. We know. Air Transat is being pressured. ADM is rushing ahead to make sure everything is done before May 8 to be able to make the announcement at the general annual meeting. It is rushing to announce Air Transat is moving.
Why? Because ADM does not want Bill C-27 to be adopted. It does not want to have to deal with other problems. It has already had to deal with the hotel owner's wrath. About $17 million had to be paid to the hotel owner because, clearly, the profit projections are not quite what they were when the lease was negotiated. The owner won. An appeal has been launched. Obviously, in the meantime, this is costing hundreds of jobs in this sector. This hotel was not just for passengers; it was also used for other purposes and had built a reputation over the years. That is why so many hotel owners would like to purchase it.
The harsh reality is that ADM does not give a—there are things we are not permitted to say in the House—hoot what the residents of Mirabel, the Basses-Laurentides, Quebec and Canada might think. It does not care. It wants to try to save what remains of the aviation industry in Quebec, again by choosing the wrong solution, which is to try to direct road and air traffic toward Montreal Island.
On every island in the industrialized world, traffic is being directed elsewhere to try to set up offices for white collar workers. Pretty suburbs are created too, all to try keep the big stuff outside, including airports. In this respect, Montreal will always be doing the opposite, controlled by the West Island of Montreal—how wonderful—which prefers to deal with Toronto than the rest of Quebec.
This is the reality. It has always been like this. It always will be. I cannot imagine things being any different, although maybe some day they will. That will be the day that Quebeckers create their own country. Perhaps then people will see that by helping someone else, you help yourself. Charity begins at home. So, the people of Quebec must understand that they must do unto themselves before they do unto others.
That is the harsh reality. Once again, the federal government had created high expectations within the population of Quebec. Let me go over the figures one more time, because they are incredible. The government had set aside 93,000 acres of land, that is 27 times the Mirabel airport and 10 times the largest airport in the world. That is what Mirabel was at the beginning. Nowadays, it is still one of the biggest airports in the world. Even if almost 75,000 acres have been given back to the expropriated, it still sits on over 15,000 acres of land and that is four times the size of Dorval airport. Once again, this airport will disappear with what? With an organization, ADM, that will argue that we will be going back to Mirabel one day; with a minister that will agree; with Liberal members from Quebec who will also tell us “One day, we will come back to Mirabel. It is unavoidable. Because of security issues. Because of all kinds of things”. In the meantime, $800 million has already been spent on Dorval and another $1.2 billion will be invested in that airport, with the requirement, under the new legislation, for greater transparency. There is a whole chapter on airport improvement fees. Air carriers have the tough duty to tell airport authorities, “You charge too much for improvements. The fees that we and the passengers have to pay are crippling the airline industry”.
I do not see how these costs can be reduced at Montreal. ADM has not finished and still has over $1 billion to invest in its facilities.
There will be an attempt by all companies, Air Canada leading the pack, to ask ADM to cut the charges. One way to do that is to reduce renovation expenses. Renovations are finished at some airports, but Montreal is only about one-third done. ADM cannot, therefore, cut its costs. Obviously, Mirabel will have disappeared, so there will be only Dorval left.
There is another issue: rents. Today the airlines are coming before the standing committee on transport to tell us that, if the industry is to be saved the federal government absolutely must reduce rents so that airports, airport administrations, can reduce the charges levied on the airlines. Our audience needs to understand that in Montreal ADM does not just charge user fees for hanger or facility renovations, but also charges the airlines fees. Each time loans are arranged or bonds are issued, these must be paid back. They need revenue from somewhere.
I can tell you that the Bloc Quebecois agrees. Rents must come down and this must have a direct impact on the airlines. Believe it or not, ADM has been making requests of me for more than three years, since I was elected. ADM wants to reduce the rents in order to invest, once again, in renovations for Dorval. That is the reality.
I cannot see how to make it work in Montreal, because ADM has already thought about reducing the rent paid to the federal government, but that was to free up cash to borrow more and put more money into Dorval. As people have said, in 20 years, that will be finished and they will come back to Mirabel.
Somewhere the idea of the high speed train to get to the Mirabel airport has been dropped. Believe it or not, the terminal, which was built in 1975, has a train station that has never been used because high speed trains were never brought in. However, there is a station.
It would have cost $350 million to finish both highways, highways 13 and 50, and to finish the access by high speed train. In 2000, the cost was up to $450 million. More than $2 billion will have been spent at Dorval and yet, one day, we are supposed to be back at Mirabel. That is the reality.
In closing, it has been a pleasure for me to take this time to try to help those Quebeckers and Canadians who are following understand that sometimes we have good reason to complain about the federal government's actions.
Obviously, for the residents of Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, of Terrebonne—Blainville, of Laurentides and Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, and all of the ridings that could have benefited from the major development as a result of the Mirabel airport and that never got that chance, I hope that this bill will allow us to wake up ADM or even the federal Liberal government. It is never too late to do the right thing. As long as we own 15,000 acres of land with good buildings and equipment, there is always hope that it can be made profitable. I hope that a ray of wisdom will beam down from the sky and enlighten the Liberal government, so that justice can be done for the Lower Laurentians region.