Mr. Speaker, it is my turn so speak to Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act.
Bill C-14 is not bad in itself because it is very important for pump measurements to be accurate. I have noted, though, the criticisms voiced by my colleagues. They said that consumers should not have to bear the cost of the new monitoring requirements under Bill C-14. We will have to be careful in committee to fully clarify this issue.
The Bloc Québécois is in favour of sending the bill to committee. However, the bill does nothing to address the real concern of people, which is that they pay too much for gasoline. Two things need to be done: we have to create an agency to monitor gasoline prices and to give the Competition Act more bite.
The Bloc Québécois has introduced some bills in this regard that I will discuss in a few moments. That is what we need to talk about. I hope the government is not going to pat itself on the back, claiming that it introduced a bill to regulate the fluctuations in the price of gasoline and it will ensure that people pay a fair price through tighter monitoring of the measurement devices at the pump. The accuracy of these measurements is a very interesting point.
We do not even know if consumers benefit or are penalized when pumps are not working quite right. I suppose that if people are tampering with the pumps, it is not to do consumers any favours. It remains to be seen, though, whether people have fiddled with the gauge showing the number of litres pumped. That is not the solution, and I will show why in the next few minutes.
Bill C-14 amends certain provisions of the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act in order to better protect consumers against inaccurate gasoline pump measurements. That is basically what we are talking about. Many people are concerned about this. The bill covers other measurement devices as well and not just gasoline pumps.
The bill imposes penalties for contraventions to the laws in question, increases maximum fines for offences, and introduces a new fine for repeat offenders. It also introduced mandatory frequencies for measuring devices and proposes the appointment of non-government inspectors, to be trained and certified by Measurement Canada to conduct mandatory measuring device inspections.
The Bloc Québécois is in favour of Bill C-14 in principle and of sending it to committee.
However, Bill C-14 does not directly address the issue of collusion that has recently come to light in Quebec. Nor does it effectively prevent sudden increases in gas prices. I spoke about two objectives earlier: creating an agency to monitor gasoline prices and giving the Competition Act more teeth.
I want to talk about what happened in my own municipality. Many vehicles are stolen and many people are in possession of stolen vehicles in central Quebec. I do not want people to think that my region is particularly problematic, but in Victoriaville we also had the infamous gas price cartel. Luckily, the scheme was uncovered and people are being held accountable. I hope that if this happens elsewhere in Canada, we will be able to stop them.
However, under current legislation, criticism or complaints must be filed in order for the Competition Bureau to act. That is the difference. The Competition Bureau needs to have quasi-police authority to act when it feels the need and as soon as there are suspicions, not only when there is a complaint. I will come back to that.
We also believe that we still need to make an effort to efficiently respond to rising gas prices, and we can do so with our bill, Bill C-452, which the NDP member mentioned during questions and comments. That bill was introduced by my colleague from Shefford. The Competition Act does not allow the Competition Bureau to conduct inquiries on its own initiative. It must always wait for a private complaint before it can start an inquiry. We are also calling for a petroleum agency to closely monitor gasoline prices and to respond to any attempts at collusion or unjustified price hikes.
If the government had taken a serious approach to really helping consumers, it would have focused on those two points. Every time the price of gasoline rises suddenly, people begin to wonder about the oil industry, and rightfully so. These increases are unjustified, and consumers must not be the victims of dubious business practices on the part of oil companies. I repeat, the existing Competition Act has significant gaps. For instance, it does not allow the Competition Bureau to undertake a real investigation of an industrial sector. How can it gather information if it can neither force the disclosure of documents nor protect witnesses? This aspect must be corrected.
Bill C-452 introduced by the Bloc Québécois would toughen up the Competition Act to give the federal trade tribunal the right to initiate an investigation, rather than waiting for complaints or accusations, the right to protect witnesses and the right to conduct searches and seize documents. A petition to that effect has been circulating. It is a very popular petition, particularly in my region, understandably, since it was seriously affected by this cartel. To ensure that everyone clearly understands the importance of this issue, I would like to read the petition.
1. Individuals and companies pled guilty in the summer of 2008 to conspiring to fix the price of gasoline;
2. According to Le Soleil, retailers could be overcharging by more than $100 million a year;
3. The current Competition Act has significant gaps, preventing the Competition Bureau from conducting investigations until complaints are lodged.
THEREFORE, your petitioners call upon the House of Commons to pass Bill C-452, An Act to amend the Competition Act (inquiry into industry sector), authorizing the Commissioner of Competition to conduct an inquiry of her own accord into the fluctuating price of gasoline.
I can say that this petition is very popular. People are requesting it. They get it online and sign it. People want something to be done about what happened. The Competition Bureau did manage to take action in my region. It is so difficult to do anything about this that this was only the second time the Competition Bureau was able to take action in this type of incident. The first time was in Vancouver in 1995. The second time was in 2008 because there was a complaint. We should not have to wait for a complaint before something can be done. Nonetheless, it worked out and that is how it should be, with increased powers and investigations before things get to the complaint stage.
The Competition Bureau discovered a gasoline cartel in Quebec. By cartel we mean an agreement between companies not to compete with one another. It is a rather simple definition. I will read from a Competition Bureau document, a press release that was issued on June 12, 2008:
...the Competition Bureau became aware of allegations of price-fixing at gas stations in Victoriaville, Quebec. The evidence gathered during the Victoriaville investigation led to further probes in other local markets in Quebec, namely Thetford Mines, Sherbrooke and Magog.
In conducting its investigation, the Bureau uncovered evidence of agreements between competitors to fix the price at the pump at which gasoline was sold to consumers. The evidence indicated that participants in the targeted markets carried out the conspiracy mainly by phoning each other to agree on the price of gasoline and about the timing of price increases, contrary to section 45 of the Competition Act.
A number of investigative tools were used, including wiretaps, searches and the Competition Bureau’s Immunity Program.
Some could dispute my argument since I was saying earlier that the Competition Bureau did not have enough room to manoeuvre. Some might say there was collusion, and that a cartel formed in Victoriaville, Thetford Mines, Sherbrooke, and Magog and perhaps elsewhere, but there have been no reports of this in other places.
The competition bureau was able to take action. Lawsuits were filed and some people have already pleaded guilty. So, it works. However, as I keep saying, it took a complaint. At one point, a gasoline retailer from the Victoriaville area received threats, seemingly from other retailers, because he did not want to go along with their scheme. He would keep his prices a little lower than those of the others for a while. His company supported him for a while. However, he eventually found himself all alone and he decided to expose this situation. If I am not mistaken, he talked to a local weekly newspaper. He expressed his frustration to a journalist regarding these events, the threats he had received and the fact that, as a merchant, he wanted to continue to be able to compete with the others.
That is what is wrong with the petroleum industry. If someone wants to buy a pair of shoes, he can go to two or three different stores. Chances are the price of a pair of shoes of the same brand and colour will not be the same everywhere. There may be a $5 or $10 difference. The person may even find a pair on sale, at 50% off the regular price if he is lucky. However, when it comes to gasoline, even if we look everywhere, we will rarely find much variation in prices. In the case that took place in my community, the competition bureau showed that retailers would phone each other and set prices. So, obviously, prices were the same everywhere.
That individual decided that enough was enough, and he spoke out about it. It is only when the competition bureau saw what was going on that it could take action. It reasoned that since a complaint had been filed, it could take action. Otherwise, it could not have done anything. That is why the procedure at the competition bureau must change.
As I said, a number of charges were laid. In Victoriaville, 11 companies were involved in the scheme. In Thetford Mines there were 6. In Sherbrooke there were 20, and in Magog there were 5.
As I mentioned earlier, several companies in Victoriaville, Thetford Mines and Sherbrooke pleaded guilty. The fines are rather stiff, that is $179,000 in one case, $1,850,000 for an oil company, and $600,000 and $90,000 respectively for two other companies. That is more than a slap on the wrist. The $1,850,000 fine was imposed on an oil company, not on a retailer. There is no doubt that these penalties will have a sobering effect.
Obviously, I travel a lot, like all of my colleagues here. We all travel within our ridings. When we are responsible for files, we deal with them away from here, which allows us to compare gas prices. It is interesting to note that at one time in Victoriaville, gas was always slightly more expensive than in Trois-Rivières or Drummondville. Sometimes it was less expensive than in Quebec City, but it was not the cheapest in the province, far from it. Since the Competition Bureau started its inquiry and the results came out, it is funny, but the prices are often lower. People had to be caught red-handed for others to be far more careful in terms of fixing prices. We are still the ones who are benefiting today. Luckily, the Competition Bureau's inquiry allowed us to find out what was going on.
As for the individuals linked to this collusion, this cartel, there were fines of $50,000, $10,000 and $5,000. For once, we caught the people and were able to make them pay. I have here a series of fines for $10,000, $20,000 and $25,000, depending on the person's involvement in the scheme.
As for how this all played out, an article in La Tribune says that the gas cartel may have cost each car owner up to $180. This whole story came to light in 2008, but prices were fixed between 2002 and 2006. The newspaper article says:
A very rough estimate [because it is difficult to know how much gas each person bought over the years] is that each year a car owner in Sherbrooke, Magog, Thetford Mines and Victoriaville paid an extra $20 to $40 to fill up their vehicle because of the cartel, which distorted gas prices for approximately four and a half years.
It is interesting to note that a class action lawsuit against the gas cartel is now before the civil division of the Quebec Superior Court, which will attempt to determine how much money should be given back to people who were swindled for four and a half years.
To date, over 12,000 people—and that number is a few months old—have signed on to the class action lawsuit authorized by Quebec Superior Court Justice Dominique Bélanger on November 30, 2010, concerning gas price fixing between January 1, 2002, and June 30, 2006, in the aforementioned cities.
According to another interesting article, this time in Le Soleil:
Plaintiffs are seeking $7.5 million plus interest as of January 1, 2002. In addition, they are seeking $500 for trouble and inconvenience for each participant in the lawsuit, as well as $1,000 in punitive damages. The Automobile Protection Association is also seeking $250,000.
That should give a sense of the amounts of money sought by this class action. It is important to note that Bill C-14 does not address these concerns at all. Conservative members should not be saying that this bill will solve all gas price fixing problems. The bill might make retailers more accountable by imposing regular mandatory inspections of measuring devices, such as gas pumps, but it will not prevent the price of gas from going up right before a long weekend for who knows what reason.
I have said this a number of times in the House and I will say it again: every time I see gas prices jump and watch television reports about it, I am always curious about what could possibly have caused gas prices to jump by 5¢, 10¢ or 12¢ per litre.
When a representative of the association of oil companies explains on television that there is a problem in Iraq or an oil rig leak, it is always rather difficult to believe him. In many cases, the facts show that the price of a barrel of oil, given that we have reserves, was a certain amount when the problem occurred. As this amount has still not gone up, the price hike should come later, but that is not what happens. As soon as a problem is announced—and we never know if it is real—the price at the pump goes up right away and never goes down as quickly as it should. Thus, we have reason to wonder.
Getting back to Bill C-14, the fines that the courts could impose pursuant to the Weights and Measures Act would increase from $1,000 to $10,000 for minor offences, and from $5,000 to $25,000 for major offences. In the case of subsequent offences, a new maximum fine of $50,000 and/or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years could be imposed. I would be surprised to see that happen.
There are some measures like this in Bill C-14 but, I repeat, that is not what consumers asked for initially.
The member for Westmount—Ville-Marie even said that the Liberal Party, in 2005, had introduced Bill C-19. There again, the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, which called for the creation of a gasoline price monitoring agency and more teeth for the Competition Act, were ignored. These two objectives were not achieved by the previous Liberal government, nor by the Conservative government. It is our responsibility to tackle this issue immediately.