That, in the opinion of the House, the government should take action with regard to gasoline prices by: (a) setting up a petroleum monitoring agency responsible for preparing an annual report on all aspects of the industry, including how prices are set and competition issues, whose director would be independent and appointed for a three-year term after consultation with sector representatives and the Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology, and that the Committee be tasked with considering the report; and (b) by bringing forward amendments to strengthen the Competition Act, including measures to ensure that the Competition Commissioner has the power to launch investigations, summon witnesses and ensure confidentiality.
Mr. Speaker, in 2003, the Bloc Québécois was moved to take action in response to the regular gas price hikes, most of these for no reason, or no real reason.
In its November 2003 report in response to the unanimous motion by the Bloc Québécois in February 2003, the Standing Committee of Industry, Science and Technology, having studied this matter, felt obliged to recommend creation of a petroleum price monitoring agency. The present government, at the time in a heavy majority position and just as arrogant as now, rejected the recommendation, despite the unanimous opinion on the committee, some of whose members were Liberals, the present Minister of Immigration in particular.
The finance minister at that time, the irresponsible finance minister, I might add, and equally irresponsible PM now, had the gall to amend the taxation system in order to benefit the oil and gas companies even further. He dropped the tax rate on their profits from 27% to 21% over three years, while doing the exact opposite to mining companies, at a time when they were experiencing the lowest ever prices for their products.
As a result, in a number of Quebec areas, in particular Abitibi-Nord, Abitibi-Témiscamingue and the Eastern Townships, mines closed down and hundreds of workers were out of work, while the oil companies, for the first quarter of 2004 alone, were blessed with additional revenues not far from the million dollar mark, including the increase in refining margins.
As for the consumers, the truckers, taxi drivers, people living in the regions, the common carriers, both bus and trucking companies and airlines, they have never had an ounce of assistance from the government. I am not including in this certain shipping companies which conceal their assets in tax havens, fly flags of convenience, make purchases anywhere but here, and pump out their bilges into Canadian waters, Quebec waters if at all possible.
Now for the rise in gas prices. As I said at the beginning, gas prices have been increasing by leaps and bounds for years. This happened in 1999, the winter of 2000-01, the winter of 2-003, and once again in 2004.
In May 2004, gas prices reached record levels in the Montreal area, with a weekly average of 99.7¢ a litre for regular gas, I should point out. All kinds of excuses, each as false as the next, were given, such as the war in Iraq, intense cold, taxes, pipeline sabotage and production cutbacks by Arab countries, to name but a few.
Up to now, none of these has had any effect on gas prices at the pump, it seems, up to now quite the contrary. Shortages have been created artificially, and, each time, the government revelled in the situation, even though 53% of the revenues generated went in the direction of the United States.
It is worth mentioning that between May 2002 and May 2003, profit margins jumped by 62.33%, and from May of 2003 to May of 2004, they increased by 86%. In other words, they went from 29.5 cents a litre to 54.9¢ a litre and during the same period, the inflation rate was 2%, for the very reason that it was affected by the sharp increases in the price of petroleum products.
To show how little consideration this government gives to consumers, we need only consider that petroleum product prices more than doubled between 1999 and 2000. Under pressure from the opposition parties, the government introduced at that time a program to help consumers pay their heating bills. However, between 1999 and 2002, the price of petroleum products increased more than fivefold, but the assistance program disappeared, despite an even sharper increase between 2003 and 2004.
The Prime Minister, who was then finance minister and a shareholder in a western oil company, in apparently flagrant conflict of interests, had no qualms—any more than he did in the sponsorship scandal—when he reduced the taxes on petroleum company profits by 6%.
Let me be perfectly clear; I am not accusing him of getting richer. He probably lost some money, but that is not something we will shed tears over when we think about the poor folks who lost their entire life savings, or those who are unable to retire as they planned, all because of the minister's failure to regularize this situation.
Let us not kid ourselves; inflation caused by gas prices has had many effects and impacts on consumer prices, transportation costs—for those who could change them quickly enough—and on the survival of certain transportation companies, whether they move passengers or goods by air or on land. Air Canada is one example we might think of.
The most shocking thing in all this, and I am repeating it, is the fact that at least 53% of these profits do not even touch down in Canada before going off to the United States. The same thing is still happening today with this government. We could mention the printing of our money in Germany, the production of advertising brochures in China, and particularly the very explicit encouragement to clothing manufacturers to go and set up shop where slave labour is the norm.
There was a time when the federal government intervened with presence and authority in the oil industry in order to help the producers themselves in the 1960s. That was on the recommendation of the Borden commission. In 1974 there was a freeze on the price of Canadian oil at a level below world prices. In 1975, Petro Canada was created to set a standard for the industry. It cost Canadians a bundle.
It was beneficial for a time, that is, until the government realized that it was a great pork barrel for their buddies, who were just as greedy as the ones today, and then gave them a wonderful gift by selling them half of this crown corporation at a price everyone at the time thought ridiculously low.
It was from that moment that its true mission was completely dropped and it became a champion of increased profits to the detriment of Canadian shareholders. This government decided to hand over to another Liberal friendly company the job of liquidating for good what was left of a company that had just made a 564% jump in profits.
Since 1984, the federal government has been much more concerned with freeing oil markets from their obligations than protecting consumers and other companies from the underhanded control of the oil market, going so far as to present them with the possibility of adding billions of dollars more to their existing exorbitant benefits.
Instead of boosting these shameless surpluses, it would have been more appropriate to surtax the excessive profits, which might have discouraged these excessive profits. It also could have just as well required a decrease of emissions in the atmosphere. A portion of this surplus could have been used for this purpose and we may not be talking about this decrease today.
Although the major oil companies insist that consumers are well served by the current market, one thing remains unanswered: the blatant lack of transparency.
The lack of authority of the Competition Act prevents Competition Bureau investigations from being effective.
Every time a crisis arises, the public wonders about the oil industry. It is high time to put an end to the crises every time the price of gas suddenly surges.
It is no secret. The crises are in large part due to the lack of competition in the oil industry where 75% of the market belongs to the three largest refineries. The increased profits for these oil companies stems directly from the profit margin at the refining stage.
Usually, according to AQUIP, it costs between 2.5¢ and 4¢ to refine one litre of gas. When the refining margin is between 4¢ and 6¢ a litre, the company does well.
Between 1998 and March 2003, the margins averaged 7.2¢ a liter. Could it be said that it was very good? As of early March 2003, these margins fluctuated between 9.5¢ and 11¢ a liter, reaching 11.4¢ in March 2004 and an almost incredible amount of 21.7¢ of profit margin.
This is having a huge Impact on certain groups of citizens and on the economy in general. It is hurting sugarbush operators who need to heat and boil the syrup, farmers who operate farm machinery, contract truckers, all those who use heating fuel, mass transit services, bus companies whose ridership has plummeted because of the increase in prices, just as airlines and the tourism industry.
A first solution had been proposed. The Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology of the Chamber of Commons, in its report on the Competition Act, recommended a reversal of the burden of the proof to deal with agreements among competitors and to determine whether there is a conspiracy. It would have been the responsibility of the party wishing to enter into an agreement to prove the ultimate social value of that agreement. The Bloc Québécois supported that report.
On May 5, 2003, in the industry, natural resources, science and technology committee , Mr. von Finckenstein, the Commissioner of Competition, cited raised as a shortcoming of the current Competition Act the lack of investigative powers in the context of a study of the industry, and the need to have an independent body with the authority to summon witnesses and gather information while protecting confidential information that no one wishes disclosed but that would be essential to a factual conclusion.
Indeed, how is information to be gathered when documents cannot be disclosed and witnesses protected?
The second solution that was proposed was the establishment of a petroleum monitoring agency. On April 2, 2004, the Liberal government presented its response to the standing committee's report. It said no to the establishment of a monitoring agency. It simply pledged to promote the dissemination and understanding of information on petroleum product prices. And this, even though the Liberals on the committee, including the current Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, had supported the report. This is another example of the democratic deficit under the current Prime Minister.
As I have only one minute left, I will conclude here. I urge all members of this House to support this motion in order to stabilize the quality of life of all taxpayers in every one of our ridings and to stabilize and curb any inflationary tendency.