Madam Speaker, we should have been celebrating today, because we are debating Bill C-66. For years now, the Bloc Québécois has been calling for the Competition Act to be amended, to include investigative authority among other things. We are finally going to have amendments, which the Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology will be considering tomorrow.
We were also calling for a petroleum monitoring agency. Unfortunately, the government truncated the agency's mandate, but it is nevertheless going ahead, in part, with the Bloc's idea.
But the place where the government's and Prime Minister's plan disappoints us the most and needs the most improvement is with respect to Bill C-66.
We have before us a bill in reference to the sudden spike in oil prices, which will compensate for the related loss of buying power and will target those in greater need. The problem is that not everyone who is in need was included, only those who could be administratively included.
For example, seniors who are receiving old age pension benefits under the guaranteed income supplement program will be entitled to compensation. Seniors have experienced price increases following the hike in oil prices, whether or not they have a car. Those who do not have cars have to take cabs to go places. Their heating costs are going to increase as well. As far as I am concerned, this kind of compensation is fully justified. This was requested by the Bloc Québécois and it was part of the action plan that we presented in early September, a full month before the government tabled its action plan.
The bill also provides for people with children to be entitled to similar compensation. We are in favour of that as well. However, the budget for all of these measures will be $550 million, while the Bloc Québécois had estimated the amount required at $1.5 billion.
Why did the government not put forward a measure for women, people living alone or certain categories of workers? For example, someone came to see me on Saturday. The man told me that he was earning minimum wage and had to drive about 10 kilometres to work and back. At his income level, he will not be entitled to any form of compensation.
This means that workers will be worse off. People who are at the lower end of the middle class and those who are poor, even though they have a job and try to earn their living as best they can, will not get any help.
The government has given us only one explanation. The minister told us that the government had looked at how to address this. He also said that the government has decided to set aside those for whom there is no existing administrative mechanism for compensation. It does not make any sense. The government will absolutely have to review its plan of action on this and ensure that everyone is covered by the proposed plan.
I will given another concrete example. There is a music school in La Pocatière, a municipality in my riding, that hires teachers, who quite often are from out of town, from Quebec City, Montmagny, Rivière-du-Loup, from all over the region. They are often young people who have just finished or are finishing up their music degree. Now there is a major problem. These young teachers no longer want to come because of the high cost of gas, which cuts into the little bit of income they earn from giving lessons.
These people from the remote regions are not included in the plan in any way. This is true for the young music teachers in my example, but it is also true for everyone who has to travel in the region.
This morning a press conference was held here by older workers aged 55, 56, or 58 who have been laid off by companies in the regions. These people from the clothing and textile industry often do not earn $20 or $25 an hour. They need to carefully consider how much it will cost them to get to work and to look for work since they often have to travel 10, 20, 30 or 40 kilometres away to find work, which costs money. Looking for work then becomes a problem since the individual has to cover 100% of the cost, only to earn a modest salary. This, in effect, slows the economy.
Yet, there is one economic sector, the oil industry, that is raking in exorbitant profits. The federal government is refusing to help people in need for two reasons. First, it has not found good administrative mechanisms to meet the needs. Second, it does not dare take a sizeable bite out of the oil industry profits.
In its action plan, the Bloc Québécois had provided for an increase of approximately $500 million or $550 million, with a tax on additional profits. Last week, we saw these profits skyrocket. This morning, in the news, there was a report on an oil company whose profits did not increase that much. However, executives received $93 million on shares that they sold during the last period. This gave the impression that profits had not increased as much as expected.
The government program should be improved considerably. The government must ensure there is enough money within the contingency fund provided for in the budget. It must demand an additional contribution from oil companies to put an end to the diversion of wealth that the last increase has created.
This increase is not only the result of the forces of nature. In the last 10 years, North America has been experiencing a significant reduction in its refining capacity. This reduction has been orchestrated so that, as soon as an event has changed the speculation issues, the tap has been closed and prices have been able to skyrocket. If the petroleum monitoring agency had already been able to take action in such a situation for a few years, we could have taken measures to correct it. However, the government did not do so during the last crisis. Let us hope that the current agency's mandate, which is inadequate, will be expanded to an inquiry mandate.
So we can see that the government has shunted numerous groups aside. To give a few more examples, as well as the people living alone, there are the independent truckers. One in my riding told me recently that, after a long work week, he managed to bring home $800 to his family once all his expenses were paid. With the huge jumps in gasoline prices we have had already, and are still experiencing, that money has disappeared. He does not bring home enough, sometimes nothing at all. When things were at their worst, he had no money for his family; everything went into operating the truck and keeping the economy running.
These categories of people needed help when speculation hit them hard in the pocket-book. The impact did not take three weeks or a month to make itself felt. As soon as the speculative price hike took place, these people had to bear the brunt of it. We believe it is the government's responsibility to make sure that enough of the increased profits made by the oil companies get back into the pockets of these people.
As well as the truckers, there are the farmers, particularly the maple syrup producers. They use a great many oil-fired burners in their operations, so their profits are dwindling because their production costs are increasing, the result of higher oil prices. The total loss to Canadian agricultural activities is $250 million. Our farmers have had a hard time of it in recent years; they do not need anything else.
We believe that the government would have the means to compensate them so that their operations and the economy can continue to progress without their having to add to their already substantial debt load.
Those are all examples of segments of the population that deserved a hand up from the government but are not included in the bill at present.
As for the taxi drivers, there was a pre-fabricated solution available for them. For a number of years, the Government of Quebec has had a tax credit for taxi drivers. All that was needed was to extrapolate from this model and to apply it to all of Canada. This would also have decreased the effects of inflation. The rise in inflation is solely due to the rise in fuel costs. Its effects are just beginning to be felt.
People who had protected contracts will no longer have one. Taxi drivers will receive normal increases to cover their operating expenses so they can drive their cabs. But ultimately consumers will pay the price of this increase. The federal government should have ensured that they would get assistance too.
The same is true for independent foresters. These days, people no longer use small chain saws to cut down trees, but rather multi-purpose machines costing hundreds of thousands of dollars that consume lots of gas. There is no assistance for these people. Often, in rural areas, people struggle to pay their bills every month and save a few pennies. As a result, the recent increase in gas prices is preventing people from making ends meet every month. Some of them are forced to hand the bank their keys, because they can no longer operate their business.
We have seen the danger for consumers, in the past, when gas prices rise, and I hope no one forgets it. It is always the same old story. Prices shoot up, then they drop a little, and the hope is that the public will forget, after which prices shoot up again, a little later.
The price increase has nothing to do with allowing for environmental costs or ensuring energy diversification. It is so the oil and gas companies can increase their profits. This is important. We should talk about this to make sure that we are paying the actual cost, not just the production costs, but the environmental costs too. I think that everyone agrees we should pay the actual cost of gasoline.
However, we should not have to pay the prices following speculation, which could have been prevented if the right tools had been put in place. Right now, we are doing crisis management. Costs have increased significantly for some people. So, we need to consider to whom we can give this assistance. We are talking about seniors and parents, and so much the better.
However, there is no money for other people who need it just as much as those two categories, but who are not getting anything, simply because no administrative process was provided. But the Bloc Québécois had, among other things, proposed a refundable tax credit that would have been paid to all families with an income of less than $30,000. This initiative would have cost $1.5 billion, but the money would have come from the reserve provided in the budgets and from the additional levy imposed on oil companies.
So, the government must assume its role in the distribution of wealth. Wealth is something that is generated, but there are artificial factors that come up and result in oil companies making undue profits. Why not find ways to give that money to those who are feeling the effects of the current price increase?
It is clear that many people were forgotten by the government. This does not mean that we should reject this bill. We are talking about the very principle of giving back to the public a part of the greater profits made by oil companies, which are the result of this major short term price increase triggered by speculation. As regards this principle, we are pleased that the government agreed with it after our presentation.
Remember what the Minister of Transport said a few months ago: market forces rule, we cannot do anything, we cannot make a move, we must stay put. However, the Bloc Québécois reacted by proposing a plan and by asking questions. In the end, the Minister of Transport stuck to his position, but the government agreed with the principle that there should be a form of compensation.
This type of compensation is provided for in the legislation in principle and we support it. However, it is grossly inadequate. At various stages of consideration of the bill, we absolutely must be able to amend it in order to expand on who will be entitled to this type of income. There currently are not sufficient types of assistance for everyone who needs it, who deserves it and who had to pay the price for higher fuel costs.
I will give another example of a sector where we should have taken action. There is no incentive in the bill nor in the government's current policy for consumers to buy more fuel efficient cars. We are told, “The high price of fuel will encourage us to develop other types of energy”. However, to do so, there needs to be incentives. We also need to elaborate on the polluter-pay principle, which the government did not follow through on. It has not provided any help for consumers to buy more fuel efficient cars, which would have been an excellent way to contribute to improving the environment and alleviating the pressure on the price of fuel.
We see that there are truly many sectors that have been forgotten that should not have been. There is also the entire issue of green energy. The government could have made sure that for wind power production, which costs roughly 2¢ per kilowatt hour more than conventional energy, this difference is recognized and covered by the WPPI program.
This program should be modified so that the incentive offered is 2¢ per kilowatt hour, that $2.1 billion over 10 years is available and that the ceilings per province is withdrawn from the program. There is currently a ceiling for each province. There is a penalty for provinces that take their own initiative. In Quebec, especially, there is a wave of wind power development. It would have been very beneficial to take this development even further.
This bill represents only part of the action planned by the federal government to deal with the increase in the price of gasoline. There are certain short-term measures in this bill. They are inadequate and fail to help all sorts of clienteles, all sorts of people who every day suffer the financial consequences of the hike in gas prices.
Today some people are saying that there is no reason to complain, because prices have fallen to 95¢ a litre, and that is reasonable. It should not be forgotten that in early January 2005 we were paying 78¢ a litre. That is still an increase of 20% to 25%. Few economic sectors are experiencing this price explosion and can rake in the profits that come with it. It is somewhat as if the rest of the economy had been taken hostage. With the rise of the dollar and the price of gas, the capacity of businesses to make profits has been greatly compromised.
For example, in my riding, there are people in the Rivière-du-Loup region who sell products to the state of Texas. The mere fact of the increase in transportation costs wipes out their profit margin. These people, who are doing their job as they should, making efforts to find and develop markets, have seen the sudden arrival of an additional unforeseen factor, a kind of diversion of profits toward one particular industrial sector. The petroleum sector has to be disciplined, because these convulsions in the economy are not necessarily beneficial for the economy as a whole; we have had a very clear demonstration of that with the most recent hikes.
I also hope that, in the mandate that is finally given the petroleum monitoring agency, there will be a power of recommendation to the House of Commons, as the Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology had recommended almost unanimously. At that time, only the MPs in the Alliance—a party that no longer exists—withheld their consent to this position.
If the government decides to make the agency nothing more than a mirror of the activity, that will be a small improvement, but very far from what we are looking for. What we want is an instrument of action for parliamentarians. Every year, we will have a report on the evolution of the petroleum market. The agency could have made recommendations on changing the organization of that market.
We are not talking about price control, but about a system to guarantee that there will not suddenly be excessive price hikes. All kinds of actions have been undertaken elsewhere, particularly in some U.S. states, where there is a ban on vertical integration, that is from drilling right up to the gas pump. That might help us control the market better, but it would require us to get some information, find out how that works and what solution we could propose to improve the situation.
So the federal government has agreed to bow to pressure, particularly that of the Bloc Québécois, and of the economic situation itself. We had made some concrete proposals. The government's action, however, does not go far enough.
This crisis may be an opportunity to make more progress in distributing the wealth that is concentrated in the oil and gas sector. The economy would also have to be diversified in order to reduce our dependency on oil and gas and to develop other energy sources. It is also necessary to keep an eye on the signals we are giving out.
In fact, the roots of this problem go back a long way. For years, the present Prime Minister—and former finance minister—sent the message that this could not be done, that those were the rules of the marketplace, that it was up to the players to set up the rules of the game and we could not assume any responsibility.
We have felt the effects of that with the increases in fuel prices. We kept on knocking at the door, however, and have managed to get the government to open it a crack. So much the better.
Now we will have to ensure that this bill and the other government actions really achieve something. The first thing to do is to broaden the pool of those entitled to compensation for losses caused by the rise in fuel prices. That is what people expect of government. Corrective measures must be taken and the bill must undergo some major changes. This is urgent.