Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak about a subject that affects a number of citizens. Everyone has an opinion about the price of gasoline and how that price is calculated. In past years, some reports and newspaper articles shed a light on gas pumps that were not accurately measuring the quantity of gas at some retailers. Consumers were frustrated, especially since at the time, gas was even more expensive than it is now. Bill C-14 was introduced in response to these reports.
The Bloc Québécois believes that it is important to modernize the legislation to guarantee better consumer protection and to deter businesses that could profit from these inaccuracies. The government must act as quickly as possible. But first, I would like to outline the position of the Bloc Québécois before I talk about our concerns about this bill.
I would like to begin by saying that the Bloc agrees with the principle of Bill C-14. However, the bill does not respond directly to the issue of collusion, such as recently came to light in Quebec, nor does it effectively prevent sudden gas price increases.
This is an important issue for the Bloc Québécois and we believe that we must continue to try and respond effectively to gas price increases with Bill C-452 because Bill C-14, which we are talking about today, still does not allow the Competition Bureau to initiate an inquiry. It has to wait until it receives a complaint from an individual before launching an investigation. The Competition Bureau does not have the power to investigate if it has not received a complaint.
Although the Bloc Québécois agrees with the principle of Bill C-14, the bill is not an end in itself. It does not deal with the major issue of apparent collusion in this industry. We believe that it is time to make amendments to the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act.
First, any retailer that violated the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act would automatically receive a fine of up to $2,000. Inspectors who discover the violation would issue a ticket ordering the offender to pay the fine. The offender could then pay the fine or contest it within the timeframe and according to the terms of the ticket.
The defendant could present a due diligence defence, demonstrating that he had exercised due diligence in order to prevent the offence from being committed. Consequently, it would be up to the retailer to prove that he is not guilty, and there could be additional penalties if the retailer continues to operate in violation of the law.
However, the most important thing, I feel, is that the act would allow the names of offending businesses to be published. In an area such as gasoline sales, if a retailer were found guilty, there would be a serious impact. Word travels quickly in some neighbourhoods and since there are numerous gas stations, some businesses could lose customers. This measure would definitely force certain retailers to obey the new law.
Second, the amendment to the Weights and Measures Act will allow authorities to impose much stiffer fines on offenders.
Under the new provisions of this bill, government appointed inspectors will be authorized to enter the premises where they have reasonable grounds to believe that an infraction has been committed. They will be authorized to examine, seize and keep anything found there, use any computer or communication system found there and prepare documents based on that information. They can also restrict access to the premises and force the shutdown of defective equipment.
As is the case with the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act, a retailer who violates the law repeatedly over several days will face cumulative sentences for each of the days.
Bill C-14 also amends section 35 of the Weights and Measures Act to increase the penalties imposed on offenders. In the case of a first offence, a conviction will carry a maximum fine of $10,000 and/or up to six months of imprisonment.
In the case of an offence prosecuted by indictment, the maximum fine will be $25,000 and/or up to two years of imprisonment.
In cases of repeat offences, the maximum fine for an offence punishable on summary conviction will be $20,000, although the maximum prison time remains unchanged at six months.
If the offence is prosecuted on conviction on indictment, the maximum fine will be $50,000, still with the possibility of a maximum prison sentence of two years.
Lastly, a fine of $10,000, or $20,000 in cases of repeat offences, has been established for offences that are not already covered by the legislation.
Bill C-14 is not meant to frighten retailers, but simply to correct a piece of legislation that no longer meets current standards.
It is only natural that, in 2010, inspectors should be able to ensure that consumers are not being cheated. Consumers must receive the amount they pay for. They must get their money's worth.
All the same, we do have some concerns about the bill, and we intend to raise certain issues when this bill goes to committee for examination.
We believe that Bill C-14 could have included an amendment to the Competition Act. The government should use this bill as an opportunity to introduce additional measures to protect consumers.
I have been a member of the House of Commons since June 2004, and every time we have debated the price of gas and rising prices, the government, be it Liberal or Conservative, has always said the same thing: their hands are tied because the Competition Bureau found no evidence of price-fixing among oil companies. There was therefore no problem.
What we really need to grasp here is the fact that the Competition Act has some major loopholes. The Competition Bureau cannot launch an inquiry of its own accord. Inquiries can take place only at the minister's instigation or if a consumer, a legal entity or otherwise, files a complaint.
I know the government says that it implemented measures to fix the problem as part of the 2009 budget implementation act. However, these new provisions still do not enable the Competition Bureau to inquire of its own accord or to take this kind of initiative.
The inquiry process cannot be launched until a complaint is received. That is how it works right now.
In fact, that is why we believe that the Bloc Québécois' Bill C-452 is still needed. It would enable the Commissioner of the Competition Bureau to inquire into an industry sector if he or she deems it necessary to do so. As it stands, Bill C-14 does not address that issue.
Bill C-452 gives the Competition Bureau the power to take the initiative to carry out real inquiries into the industry if it has good reason to do so, which is not something it can do right now. It cannot act until it receives a complaint.
It goes without saying that if we pass such a bill, the Competition Bureau will be far better equipped to fight companies that seek to take advantage of market dominance to fleece consumers.
I hope that my colleagues of all political stripes in the House will tell us what they think of Bill C-452 and whether they agree with us about the Competition Act's shortcomings. As I said before, the current Competition Act does not allow the Competition Bureau to hold inquiries of its own accord. It cannot launch an inquiry unless it receives a complaint or is authorized to do so by the minister.
For years we have also been calling for a petroleum monitoring agency to closely monitor the price of gas and to address any attempt at collusion or unjustified price increases.
The Bloc Québécois is not alone in recommending changes. For years we have been repeating the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology made in November 2003. The federal government has never done anything to help consumers and has a fine opportunity here to set up a system to monitor the petroleum industry.
In November 2003, the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology strongly recommended the creation of an agency to monitor the oil sector. A committee would be asked to submit an annual report to Parliament on the competitive aspects. The creation of such an agency would enable the government and us as legislators to keep a close eye on the industry.
To the Bloc Québécois, there is no doubt that the Competition Bureau must have more freedom to act and more discretionary power over its inquiries. The Competition Bureau must have access to all documentation when conducting an inquiry. The Competition Bureau could then effectively play its role as an advocate for competition. When there is competition, the consumer pays a fair price.
Only if it is given more responsibility can the Competition Bureau undertake a real inquiry into the true nature of the activities of an industy sector.
Today we are no further ahead than we were seven years ago. Bill C-14 is a step in the right direction, but it is just the first step. For a long time now, the Bloc Québécois has been urging the government to take action to deal with the high prices of petroleum products. Bill C-452 is just the first step in fighting the high price of gas.
Bill C-452 aside, the Bloc Québécois is more convinced than ever that the industry must do its fair share. With skyrocketing energy prices and the oil industry's profits, the economy as a whole is suffering while the oil companies profit. We have to do away with the fat tax breaks the oil companies are getting.
One year after coming to power, in its 2007 economic statement, the Conservative government announced additional tax cuts for the oil companies, which will see their tax rate go down to 15% in 2012. Canadian oil companies will pocket nearly $3.6 billion in 2012 alone because of these tax breaks.
Third, we must reduce our dependence on oil. Quebec does not produce any oil, and every drop we consume makes Quebec poorer, in addition to contributing to global warming. The Bloc Québécois therefore proposes that we reduce our dependence on oil.
In 2009 alone, Quebec imported $9 billion worth of oil, less than usual because of the recession, but in 2008, oil imports totalled $17 billion, up $11 billion from 2003.
To reduce our dependence on oil, the Bloc has proposed substantial investments in alternative energy to create a green energy fund, launch a real initiative to reduce our consumption of oil for transportation, heating and industry, including an incentive to convert oil heating systems, and introduce a plan for electric cars.
We have to get ready, because by 2012, 11 auto manufacturers plan to introduce some 30 fully electric and hybrid models, more reliable cars with better energy efficiency and much lower operating costs than gas-powered cars.
I do not want to get away from the objectives of Bill C-14, but for the Bloc Québécois, any discussion of oil consumption has to include a real plan and a structure for attaining these three goals.
In closing, I will briefly go over the three steps to a more effective law. First, we have to bring the industry in line by giving the Competition Act more teeth. Second, the industry has to pay its fair share of taxes, which means doing away with fat tax breaks. Third, we have to reduce our dependence on oil by, among other things, introducing incentives for consumers to buy electric vehicles.
Better ways to prevent fraud, as Bill C-14 is proposing, are needed, but we must introduce measures that will really benefit us in future, with a comprehensive action plan.