Mr. Speaker, Bill C-14 is obviously important, but frankly, only relatively so. For the next 20 minutes, I will try to clearly explain the Bloc's position. I may not go into every detail of Bill C-14, but I will describe the Bloc's concerns about the Competition Act and the fact that successive governments have done nothing. And, of course, I will describe the Bloc's response to this bill, which is Bill C-452. I will also briefly explain a comprehensive strategy for dealing with increases in the price of petroleum products.
As the parliamentary secretary said earlier in his speech, the government introduced its bill to protect itself and consumers against negligent retailers. “Negligent” is putting it rather mildly. There will obviously be mandatory inspections, but they will be much more frequent. The government is talking about increasing the number of inspections from 8,000 to 65,000. The bill would also authorize the minister to appoint or designate professionals to conduct these inspections. In addition, there would obviously be fines that could be quite high, especially for repeat offenders. Of course, the government says that it is doing all this to protect the consumer.
Has the government, as usual, conducted an impact study of its bill to compare it to what is being done to manage or monitor gas prices at the pump? Naturally, there will be costs associated with all that. Inspections are not free, of course, and retailers will likely be stuck with the bill in the end. I imagine that retailers' costs will go up substantially, all to save consumers about $20 million, which is the estimated difference between the prices. That may seem like a lot of money, and it is, but how many litres and how many consumers are we talking about? Are all the costs of implementing Bill C-14 really worth it? I do have to say, though, that when consumers are hurt, it is our duty to try to make things right.
So I will say right away that we support Bill C-14 in principle. But it does not directly address collusion problems, like the ones that recently came to light in Quebec, nor does it effectively prevent sudden gas price hikes.
The Bloc Québécois still believes that the government needs to work toward offering an effective response to rising gas prices by passing the Bloc's Bill C-452. This bill would strengthen the Competition Act and create a petroleum monitoring agency.
The Competition Act still does not allow the Competition Bureau to conduct an inquiry of its own accord. It has to wait until it receives a complaint before launching an inquiry. The Bloc Québécois also wants the government to establish a petroleum monitoring agency to scrutinize gas prices and to deal with attempts to collude and unjustified price hikes.
According to tools devised to measure how much this is costing consumers, the suggested figure is $20 million.
According to the April 2009 gas consumption data that I found, that $20 million corresponds to one-tenth of a cent per litre of gas purchased in Canada. The cost of gas varies from 90¢ to $1, but it always includes a decimal that people rarely look at. However, oil companies adjust their prices to a tenth of a cent, which represents an amount much higher than the $20 million per year those tools suggest.
Overall, a one-cent difference adds up to $200 million per year, not the $20 million they are trying to correct for.
The Minister of Industry introduced Bill C-14 at first reading on April 15, 2010, claiming that it will protect Canadian consumers from inaccurate measurement when they buy gas. The proposed bill would make retailers more accountable by imposing regular mandatory inspections of measuring devices, such as gas pumps.
The penalties that the courts can impose under the Weights and Measures Act will increase from $1,000 to $10,000 for minor offences and from $5,000 to $25,000 for major offences. For consumers who feel they have been wronged, this might lead them to believe they have increased protection thanks to their hallowed and benevolent government. This is just more smoke and mirrors to trick consumers who believe they are being protected from additional costs, when the government is not doing enough to protect them when it comes to gas prices.
I am going to skip the other possible fines, because I would like to get straight to the point. The new section 29.28 in the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act allows the Minister of Industry to disclose the names and addresses of people convicted under this legislation.
If the retailer can show that he did due diligence and did everything to ensure the accuracy of his equipment, his name will likely not appear on the list of those whose equipment is defective in terms of measuring the volume. We need to determine how this measure will be applied, because any retailer could wind up on that list, even by mistake.
A clarification has been made to establish that violations of this legislation are not actually offences and therefore not subject to the Criminal Code. The individual would not have a criminal record following a conviction.
If convictions are frequent, can they be subject to a prison sentence, in cases of repeat offences, of less than two years, since they are not criminal offences? Once again, the provinces and Quebec are left to pay for this. With respect to offences, recidivism and imprisonment, Quebec will have to pay, no matter what it costs to send someone to prison for less than two years.
The Bloc's main concern is that every time the price of gas skyrockets, the government invariably says the same thing, that its hands are tied because the Competition Bureau has found that there is no collusion between the oil companies to set the price of gas and therefore there is no problem.
It is always the same answer. It is never the oil companies' fault and when the Competition Bureau conducts an investigation it always comes to the same conclusion: there is no collusion.
It would be rather surprising to see representatives of all the major oil companies openly sitting around the same table at a big restaurant. It is not likely to happen. It may be more difficult, but there must be a will to find a solution.
The Competition Act has major shortcomings that prevent the Competition Bureau from initiating an investigation. Any investigation has to be requested by the department or initiated as the result of complaints. On May 5, 2003, when Konrad von Finckenstein, the then commissioner of competition and the current chair of the CRTC, appeared before the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, he pointed out the shortcomings in the Competition Act. He said:
...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.
There was some borrowing from Bill C-452, and equivalent measures were put in place as part of the January 27, 2009 budget implementation act. However, these new provisions still do not give the Competition Bureau the authority to investigate on its own initiative. A complaint is still required before an investigation can begin.
In 2003, the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology concluded its study on gas prices by making two recommendations to the government: create a petroleum monitoring agency and toughen up the Competition Act.
In 2003, the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology also spelled out the changes it wanted to see made to the Competition Act. The Bloc Québécois was adamant that the government respect the committee's recommendations.
In October 2005, shortly before the election, the Liberal government finally agreed with the Bloc's arguments and, as part of its federal plan to help alleviate the impact of high gas prices, introduced Bill C-19 to amend the Competition Act. It strengthened this act by raising the maximum fine for conspiracy from $10 million to $25 million and broadening the Competition Bureau's authority to investigate, which would have allowed it to inquire into an entire industry sector.
However, the government bill ignored these recommendations from the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology: reverse the burden of proof to deal with agreements among competitors and to determine whether there is a conspiracy—the objective of this was to make it the responsibility of the party wishing to enter into an agreement to prove the ultimate social value of that agreement—as well as allow the Competition Tribunal to award damages to parties affected by restrictive trade practices, where applicable.
The Bloc Québécois had proposed numerous amendments along these lines.
Bill C-452 would address the shortcomings in the measures put in place under the January 2009 budget implementation act, Bill C-10
The Competition Bureau needs true investigative powers. Bill C-452 would give the Competition Bureau the authority to carry out real investigations into the industry, if warranted, on its own initiative, something it is not currently permitted to do because it must receive a complaint first.
If this legislation were passed, the Competition Bureau would be much better equipped to take on businesses that try to use their dominant position in the market to fleece consumers.
We could implement a comprehensive strategy to deal with price hikes 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.
We recommend a three-pronged approach. First, we must bring the industry into line. That is the goal of Bill C-452, which gives teeth to the Competition Act. We should also set up a true monitoring agency for the oil sector.
Second, the industry must make a contribution. With soaring energy prices and oil company profits, the economy as a whole is suffering while the oil companies are profiting. The least we can do to limit their negative impact is to ensure that they pay their fair share of taxes. The Bloc Québécois is therefore asking that the government put an end to the juicy tax breaks enjoyed by the oil companies.
Third, we must decrease our dependence on oil. Quebec does not produce oil and every drop of this viscous liquid consumed by Quebeckers impoverishes Quebec and also contributes to global warming. The Bloc Québécois is proposing to reduce our dependence on oil. All the oil Quebec consumes is imported. Every litre consumed means money leaving the province, thus making Quebec poorer and the oil industry richer.
In 2009, Quebec imported $9 billion worth of oil, a reduction because of the recession. In 2008, oil imports totalled $17 billion, an increase of $11 billion in the five years between 2003 and 2008.
At the same time, Quebec went from a trade surplus to a trade deficit of almost $12 billion, not to mention that the increase in Alberta's oil exports made the dollar soar, which hit our manufacturing companies and aggravated our trade deficit. The increase in the price of oil alone plunged Quebec into a trade deficit. It is time to put an end to the tax holiday for the oil sector.
In 2003, the Liberal government, supported by the Conservatives, introduced a vast reform of taxation for the petroleum sector. Although the oil sector had special status under the Income Tax Act, with its Bill C-48 the government reduced the overall tax rate for oil companies from 28% to 21% and also introduced many tax breaks, including accelerated capital cost allowance and preferential treatment of royalties.
This made taxes for Canada's oil sector more advantageous than in Texas. As if that were not enough, in the 2007 economic statement, the Conservatives presented additional tax reductions for oil companies, which would bring the tax rate down to only 15% by 2012. These tax breaks will enable Canadian oil companies to pocket close to $3.6 billion in 2012 alone. The Bloc Québécois thinks that these measures for the oil companies are unjustified. That it why it is proposing that we eliminate handouts to the oil companies.
I was saying that the long-term solution is to reduce our dependency on oil. We must invest considerably in alternative energies; allocate $500 million per year over five years to green energies; launch a real initiative to reduce our consumption of oil for transportation, heating and industry; introduce incentives of $500 million per year over five years to convert oil heating systems; develop a plan worth $475 million per year over five years for electric cars.
By 2012, 11 manufacturers plan on releasing some 30 fully electric or rechargeable hybrid models. These cars will be more reliable, more energy efficient and much cheaper to operate than gas-powered models.
Bill C-14 is intended to save consumers $20 million. As I was saying earlier, $20 million corresponds to one-tenth of a cent per litre of gas. Therefore, just one cent per litre could save $200 million per year. Furthermore, we must strengthen the Competition Act.