Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise to speak to Bill C-14. I want to offer up my comments as a theme to the consumers of our country, the hard-working men and women who each day use vehicles to get to work, to take their children and their families around communities and to survive. Perhaps more than the people in the House, the issues of price of gasoline and the fairness of those prices and the lack of competition in prices of gasoline and fuel products are very important to them.
I also want to offer up my comments as a theme to the small independent retail service station owners like Lyle Hogan on St. George Street in Moncton, New Brunswick, and I will get back to that.
First is the issue of the framework of the bill. Bill C-14 is the government's highly publicized fairness at the pumps act. The legislation attempts to address tampering at the pumps and has been presented as the great hope that consumers have been waiting for across the whole stretch of issues that I mentioned. However, we have to analyze the bill to see if those expectations and hopes are met.
The Minister of Industry introduced the bill last month with much fanfare. He aimed to provide court imposed fines under the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act. The bill would see higher fines for offences committed under either of these acts. As well, regular inspection and enforcement have also been heralded by the government as key elements in the proposed legislation.
The House should certainly support measures to protect the public against unfair retail practices, because confidence in the accuracy of measured goods and services is essential to a vital, efficient Canadian economy.
First, as I have briefly covered, the fairness at the pumps act would see increased fines and administrative penalties for inaccurate measurements. I do not think anybody can argue with that.
Court-imposed fines under the two acts that I mentioned would rise from $1,000 to $10,000 for minor offences and from $5,000 to $25,000 for major offences. Again, I do not think anybody quarrels with that fine imposition. It marks a change in time that these are serious offences under regulatory schemes that should be addressed. The act also addresses the need to deter repeat offences of inaccurate measurement, such that the ultimate fine is $50,000 for repeat offences. That is significant.
The act would further allow for new administrative monetary penalties to allow for graduated enforcement reflective of the severity of the various offences. With fines for minor offences and prosecution for serious and repeat offences, Canadians can be assured of appropriate and effective regulation and enforcement at the pumps.
Similarly, the use of prosecution would mean that offenders would not face tough penalties and a criminal record for minor violations, but for more serious offences.
The second item of interest in the proposed act is the much discussed introduction of mandatory and regular inspection of retail devices. This kind of accountability has no doubt been long overdue and it is high time Canadians see this sort of retailer responsibility.
Measuring device accuracy would be carried out through increased and regular inspection. At present, the bill proposes to phase in measuring of devices in the sectors of retail petroleum, wholesale petroleum, dairy, retail food, fishing, logging, grain and field crops and mining. Needless to say, the bill would seek to bring accountability to a number of economic sectors.
I fully support this amendment, because regular mandatory inspections are the norm in the G8 countries, in industrialized nations like France and Germany and nearly everywhere in the United States.
Canadians want this, even though it is a bit late in coming, because they expect to get what they pay for. With regular pump inspections, Canadians will get the goods and services they are entitled to.
I should point out that the recommended frequency of mandatory inspections is the result of consultations held across the country.
Finally, the other significant aspect of the proposed legislation would be the use of private sector service providers. The bill would provide the minister with the authority to appoint inspectors from outside the government under the Weights and Measures Act. Government has stated that this privatization of inspections would allow for Measurement Canada to “leverage its resources fully” and “enforce its mandate”. If the bill goes to committee, clearly at that stage these claims must be examined in detail.
The government would see Measurement Canada inspectors responsible only for enforcement actions. Meanwhile, independent inspectors or authorized service providers, as the government likes to call them, would be conducting the proposed increase in inspections.
I think consumers might want to be aware of the word accountability. Effective responses to complaints must be ensured as Canadians deserve this. However, ensuring these mandatory and frequent inspections are conducted with appropriate follow-ups may not necessarily be best accomplished through out-sourcing. This is but another example of matters that must be fully explored in detail in committee.
If the government is to provide independent inspection services, how much will that cost Canadian taxpayers? Bill C-14 may lead to more competitive inspection services, but that has not yet been proven.
Under this bill, the number of inspections will rise from 8,000 to 65,000 a year. Naturally, this increase will come at a cost, and the House has a duty to see that the services cost Canadians as little as possible.
The provision of the bill on independent inspectors includes small businesses that could take on this role. We have to be sure that we understand the full impact of this provision before we pass this bill.
When I first read the bill and examined the outsourcing of inspections, I could not help but think about the first experience I had on Parliament Hill as an elected person. That was not as a member of Parliament, but as a mayor of a city. I was brought up here to be a witness, under my own steam, I might add, in case there is some inquietude about that, to give evidence with respect to water quality and water management in the country as a result of what happened in Walkerton in 2000.
Members of the House will remember with regret that neither of the two men working for the Utilities Commission in the Walkerton incident had any formal training whatsoever. The tragic results of water contamination in Walkerton will not be forgotten and should teach us all a lesson about accountable and effective inspections, no matter what the industry.
I am reminded of why engineers have a steel ring on their little finger when they graduate. It is to remind them that the construction of items under their control are very important because it was linked of course to that very famous bridge collapse, which was an engineering failure.
Every time that we outsource a government service, we should be very mindful that the service serves the public and serves a very good purpose, which, we should all remember, in the Walkerton incident did not work.
The first thing we should note today in examining the preliminary evidence before it goes to committee is that industry analyst Michael Ervin made some comments about the proposed legislation. What he said, which was illuminatory to me, was that we are debating what really is, in effect, the Weights and Measures Act anyway. As he put it:
--there are laws and regulations around the metering of gasoline through pumps already. And to my mind they are more than adequate.
The act in question requires that consumers get fair and accurate value for whatever they buy, and that measuring equipment must be held to certain standards. While the government may want to assure consumers that they are being burned by the retail gasoline industry, the effectiveness of the measures in this bill must be examined. If customers are being charged an additional $1.50 to $2 each time they fill up, they have every right to be upset. That is very unacceptable, of course. I have no doubt that in this House there is agreement that hard-working Canadians deserve that protection.
The Ottawa Citizen did a study in 2008 that revealed that of more than 200,000 government inspections in less than a decade, 6% of the pumps were inaccurate. In fact, 2% of the time, the pumps erred in favour of the consumer and 94% of inspections revealed consumers were getting what they paid for.
I likened it a little bit to my job in the House as vice-chair of the justice committee. We hear that there are vast and grave problems with the administration of justice in our community. We are beset with a new law every day, but in many cases the evidence shows that the real solution to many of the crime issues is to put in the resources with police, put in the resources with corrections officials, and I do not want to stray too far from the topic, but it is somewhat the case here. Yes, there is a problem in 4% of the cases, but is that enough to herald this as the panacea to all problems with respect to gas prices at the pumps?
Retailers evidently want a fair and level playing field with regulations that apply to all. Moreover, fair treatment of the consumer must be a priority and the amendments to regulations must be based, however, on solid evidence.
A constituent of mine, a small, independent retailer whom they call the little man, is Lyle Hogan. He is the guy who runs the station that still fills up the gas with an attendant. My 81-year-old mother searches all around town to find a gas station like that because she never quite figured out how to use those automated systems. Lyle Hogan has expressed to me some very real concerns about the laws that are applicable across this country. He told me how alarmed he was at the increased cost this legislation would visit on the independents in addition to what already occurs. His quote was, “Annual inspection is $2,000 for calibration and I am completely unaware of faulty equipment amongst others in this area”.
Mr. Hogan's worry is probably well founded because he is an honest, hard-working guy, out for the little man. It might even make it harder for the independents, who never make a lot of money in this industry, where the real problem is the concentration of ownership and the lack of competition in gas pricing in this country.
Lyle Hogan represents the hard-working Canadians whose livelihoods depend upon the retail gasoline industry. It does not matter what riding they are from. We all know them, and we also know, like the drug stores and millinery shops on Main Streets across this country, that they are a fading entity. They are the little guys. They are the Alan Jackson song, The Little Man.
We should be concentrating on the bigger issue. I hope that the debate that takes place at committee will follow a lot of the advice and information that we have received from the gas guru, my friend from Pickering—Scarborough East.
Hearsay of gross inaccuracy at the pumps in a malicious business practice about Lyle Hogan is not going to solve the issue. What is going to solve the issue about what affects Canadians is this. How often do we say the Americans are ahead of us with respect to retail price protection? They are. With respect to the Weekly Petroleum Status Reports, which come out of the energy information administration in the United States of America, they can give people like my friend from Pickering—Scarborough East the information that he needs to become the gas guru and know about the lack of competition, the wholesale industry of prices, and the substantial overvaluation of energy markets that occurs right now.
In other words, there is enough crude oil in the world. There is a supply in stock and it does not reflect the prices at the pumps. The prices at the pumps in this country are artificially high and the margin for retail operators such as Lyle Hogan might be 3¢, 4¢ or 5¢. He does not have a lot to play with.
When we talk about the retail industry, there have been mergers, acquisitions and closures to the point where in any town or city across this country, there are perhaps more gas stations, or bigger ones, but fewer owners and operators, brands, distinctions and diversification.
How is it that we can say there is probably a problem with information? We can say it because in the United States the service is there. The Americans know exactly what crude stocks there are, what prices ought to be, and what investors, through their Wall Street machinations, are doing to control upwards the price of retail gas.
Then we ask ourselves, why does any member of Parliament have to resort to an American publication and link it to Canadian stocks and the Canadian situation? The reason is because there was an idea floated around in 2005 of having a petroleum price information service for Canada, the same thing available in the United States. It has not been acted upon by the government. In fact, every inquiry to give it life has been quashed, and energy consumers, people knowledgeable in the industry, are left to use American information.
We have a situation where we do not really know what is going on in the Canadian industry. We can surmise from world crude prices. We have a concentration of ownership that is affecting the consumer dilatoriously.
Luckily enough, in my own province of New Brunswick, the provincial government saw fit to institute a regulator scheme. I am not saying it gives the right lower price that consumers deserve, because that is a Canadian issue, but it does give some regulation and some consistency over a period of time to prices, which at least allows people not to be shocked by price changes and not be subject to those long line-ups that we see in other provinces when it is announced that prices are going up or down, depending upon the market whims.
We are in May of 2010 now and the Ottawa Citizen's investigation came to light in May of 2008 with respect to pump accuracy. If Canadians had been gouged at the pumps, as the government maintained years ago, why did it not act on it sooner? I could say one word “prorogation”. That is something that we ought to bring up in this House. We ought to say that we have not been here as much as we would like to in order to speak to bills like this because the government keeps pulling the plug on legislation. It keeps pulling the plug on the democratic process and this minor fix to the bigger situation was delayed because of that.
More important, the bigger fix to the bigger issue, which is to look at the issue of concentration of ownership, the lack of information from a government agency, has been delayed even further because we have not been sitting enough. The Prime Minister and his press gang are so busy having drive-by press conferences that they do not want to really get down to the issue of prices at the pumps for Canadians.
In closing, this is a bit of a smokescreen. The bill should definitely go to committee. However, at committee, I am hoping the members of that committee discuss the real issue, which is why consumers, hard-working Canadian men and women, who have to drive their kids to school, who have to take them to minor hockey, who have to get to work, are paying too much at the pumps and why people like Lyle Hogan, who has a one-man operation, may be out of business because we have not, at this time, in this place, addressed the real issue of who is being gouged and who is doing the gouging.
I urge the government to get on this issue for the good of all Canadians.