moved that Bill C-454, An Act to amend the Competition Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, be now read a second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to introduce Bill C-454, An Act to amend the Competition Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, for second reading. While we have a Competition Act at present, there are major flaws in that Act that are in need of speedy correction. I would like to demonstrate the need for the House of Commons to take action to improve the existing Competition Act.
Every time the price of gas soars, the government invariably responds by saying the same thing: there is nothing to be done because the Competition Bureau concluded that there was no agreement among the oil companies to fix prices and so there was no problem.
Well, the Competition Bureau has never investigated the matter properly, because it does not have the power to do so. All the Competition Bureau does is produce studies of the industry explaining how it operates. And when it does a study, the Competition Bureau has virtually no power, because the purpose of the studies is to explain the general operation of the oil industry, not to discipline it. Those studies have no impact and they provide no incentive for the government to take action.
The flaws in the existing Act prevent the Competition Bureau from doing any real work. The Competition Bureau cannot initiate investigations of its own accord; they have to be done in response to a request by the minister or where there have been a number of complaints. Well, we know very well that the minister is not requesting real investigations from which tangible results could be obtained.
In addition, the Competition Bureau cannot compel disclosure of documents or protect witnesses when it does a general industry study. In that kind of situation, how can we expect that individuals who have no protection will come forward to testify? As can be seen, there are limits to what the Competition Bureau can do—and that is putting it mildly. In point of fact, its hands are tied.
We need only look at the current situation to understand that it is urgent that the Competition Act be amended. The price of petroleum products is rising steadily. The price of crude oil has risen by 230% since early 2004. The price of heating oil has gone up by more than 50% in two years. Three years ago, in April 2005, a new price record was set in Montreal: the price of regular gas broke through the one dollar ceiling. Since then, it has stayed at an even higher level. In Quebec, the price continues to go up: the price of a litre of gas was 91.6¢ in May 2005, $1.06 in May 2006 and $1.10 in May 2007, and it has wavered between $1.09 and $1.18—and we have even seen $1.23—since the beginning of 2008.
But that is not all. Refining margins vary remarkably. It actually costs between 3¢ and 5¢ to refine a litre of gas, depending on the type of gas used.
According to the Association québécoise des indépendants du pétrole, when the refining margin is between 4¢ and 7¢ a litre, the company is making a healthy profit. On average, from 1998 to 2002, refining margins were 7.2¢ a litre. That is a little high, but it is within the limits of what is reasonable.
In 2003, on the other hand, the average margin in Montreal was 10¢ a litre, or twice as much as a reasonable amount. In 2004, the average refining margin increased 10% to 11¢ a litre. By 2005 and 2006, it was regularly exceeding 15¢ a litre, and in May 2007, it even reached 28¢ a litre. That is four times the reasonable margin.
At the present time, the refining margin has fallen back to 9¢ a litre, which seems better. However, when the oil companies decide they want their refining profits to soar again, the Competition Bureau will still not have the tools it needs to conduct a real investigation unless the House passes Bill C-454.
It is a great concern as well that a very small number of players have virtually total control over a market as important as gasoline. Is this situation international or not? We do not know because the Competition Bureau does not have the tools it needs to answer that question.
There is no need to remind the House of how shamelessly the oil companies are taking advantage of this. They are posting record sales. In 1995, the entire Canadian oil and gas sector posted combined sales of $25 billion. By 2004, this figure had climbed to $84.9 billion, which amounts to an increase of 239%. Total sales soared to $106.7 billion in 2005 and $118.9 billion in 2006. That is a 376% increase over 1995.
Net profits are also skyrocketing of course. The combined net profit of the six big integrated oil companies in Canada—Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, Husky Energy, Petro-Canada, Encana and Suncor—reached $12 billion in 2006. That is a $5 billion or 70% increase over 2004. The 2007 data are not available yet for all these companies, but there is every reason to believe that their results will be even more astronomical. For example, Petro-Canada finished its 2007 year with a profit of $2.73 billion or 57% more than in its 2006 financial year, which it finished with a net profit of $1.74 billion.
The net profit of the entire oil sector rose from $17 billion in 2003 to $20 billion in 2004 and then $35 billion in 2006, for an increase of 100%.
The Competition Bureau will only be useful and effective if it is able to conduct real investigations. It is illusory to think that it can take real action and come up with real results under the current legislation.
This worrisome situation—the increase in the price of gas, the upward trend in refining margins and the increase in profits—and the flaws in the current Competition Act are a constant source of discussion at the House's Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology. In fact, in the committee's 2003 report on the Competition Act, it recommended reversing the onus of proof for handling “agreements between competitors” and determining whether there is a conspiracy.
In other words, when the Competition Bureau conducts an investigation, only at the request of the minister or if there is a complaint, of course, the Bureau must prove that there was an agreement between the companies, when it should be the opposite. If we consider the economic issues that are at stake, businesses should have to prove their good faith. Businesses that want to sign agreements should also have to prove the social or economic value of the agreements.
For example, in Quebec, there is a single refinery that supplies all the companies, Petro-Canada, Ultramar, Shell, Exxon, Olco, Esso Imperial and so on. The prices are all the same. How can we talk about competition when all the oil companies are in bed together helping each other out and sharing the market? This situation is reminiscent of a cartel—a group of businesses conspiring to create a monopoly.
When Konrad von Finckenstein, the competition commissioner, appeared in front of the Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology on May 5, 2003, he identified the following shortcomings in the Competition Act:
—while the bureau's mandate includes the very important role of being investigator and advocate for competition, the current legislation does not provide the bureau with the authority to conduct an industry study.
He added, and I quote:
It seems to me that it would be preferable to have a study on the overall situation carried out by an independent body that would have authority, that would be able to summon witnesses and gather information. It should also have the power to protect confidential information that someone is not necessarily going to want to share, but which would be vital in order to reach a conclusion based on the real facts.
These statements prove that the existing Competition Act does not enable the Competition Bureau to undertake a real investigation of the industrial sector. How can it gather information if it can neither force the disclosure of documents nor protect witnesses?
During the last Parliament, a review of the legislation was undertaken. The Bloc Québécois found it too weak, but nevertheless supported it and proposed amendments to improve it. The bill died on the order paper, and the Conservatives decided not to bring it back, so the Bloc Québécois introduced Bill C-454 to strengthen the Competition Act.
Bill C-454 was inspired in large part by Bill C-19, which the Liberals introduced shortly before the 2005-06 election, but it corrects that bill's shortcomings. When the Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology studied the act in 2003 and 2005, it found that the act contained a number of provisions that were outdated and no longer useful. In essence, the bill seeks to adapt the Competition Act to today's economic realities. It gives the Competition Bureau the power to conduct its own inquiries into industry. The Competition Bureau will be able to call witnesses and protect them. That last point is very important.
Under current legislation, if businesses decide to reach an agreement to fix prices, no evidence of that will be left behind. If we cannot call and protect witnesses, there is a very good chance we will never be able to prove anti-competitive practices.
Under the new legislation, when businesses try to reach agreements with their competitors, they must demonstrate that those agreements are in the public's best interest. Presently, these agreements among competitors are permitted, unless it can be proven that they are contrary to public interest. This is unhealthy.
The bill contains another proposal: a significant increase in the amount of fines to be paid for violations of the Competition Act, from $10 million to $25 million. If this legislation were passed, the Competition Bureau would be much better equipped to fight against businesses that try to use their dominant position in the market to fleece consumers and damage other economic sectors.
On the whole, Bill C-454 will allow for the creation of a comprehensive strategy to deal with the rising cost of petroleum products. For some time now, the Bloc Québécois has been pressuring the government to take action to address the rising cost of petroleum products. Fighting to defend the interests of Quebec, the Bloc Québécois would like to see the oil and gas industry disciplined. Bill C-454 is a step in that direction. It is time to correct the situation and give the Competition Bureau the powers it needs to do its job properly.
Bill C-454, An Act to amend the Competition Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, is pivotal to any real investigations into the oil and gas sector. Passing this legislation would give the Competition Bureau the powers it needs to carry out its mandate.