Madam Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to now give a speech on this debate, having participated throughout the day in questions and comments.
I want to share that the reason I have been involved in the debate, the reason I am giving this speech, is that this was actually an issue that a constituent brought to me in my office a number of months ago. This gentleman had been an Aveos employee and had lost his job as a result of, in my view, Air Canada's ongoing efforts to shirk its clear obligations under the Air Canada Public Participation Act.
It was a pleasure for me to chat with this gentleman. I always appreciate it when constituents come to my office to educate me about issues I may not know about, and, when I have the opportunity, I can then reflect their concerns in the House. In this case, these are certainly concerns that I share. This is the context I bring to this debate.
It is certainly telling that my constituent wanted us to be talking about this issue, yet it is very clear from the way this debate has progressed back and forth that it is not an issue that the government wants to talk about. The Liberals wanted to bring this legislation forward, and to be sure, they want it to pass. However, while other parties are participating actively in this debate, it is clearly not something that the government is keen to talk about, and it is not surprising why.
Here is the deal.
The government came up with an arrangement that I think it feels satisfies everyone of importance. However, the legislation ignores the one too often overlooked stakeholder group: the people, the ordinary working women and men in this country, taxpayers, people who cannot afford to hire lobbyists, people who cannot afford to go to $500-a-plate fundraisers with ministers, people who go about their ordinary business and just hope and expect, perhaps against the odds, that the government will treat them fairly and honestly.
The government has come up with a solution in this context. The Liberals believe, it seems—which reminds of the title of a recent book I read—that the bill satisfies everyone but the people. As obscure as the Air Canada Public Participation Act may be to some Canadians who have not interacted with it directly, I think the legislation before us is something that everyone should pay some degree of attention to, because it tells us a great deal about the way the government does business. To paraphrase Michael Corleone, if you want to do business with this government, then it will do business with you.
I would like to start the substance of my remarks by reviewing the story of how we got to this sordid piece of legislation, and of who has already paid the price for the policy of the government and will continue to pay the price as we go forward.
In 1988-1989, through two separate offerings, Air Canada was privatized under, notably, a previous Conservative government, which I think had the wisdom and foresight to see the value of proceeding in that direction. I think most of us will accept now, in principle, the value of government stepping out of being directly involved in that kind of business activity, but certainly in the lead-up to that privatization, the people of Canada had already been very involved in terms of putting money into the development and ongoing maintenance of what had then been a crown corporation.
The mechanism of privatization is important here. The privatization of Air Canada was achieved through a share issue privatization, or SIP for short, and this is exactly what it sounds like. The government issued and sold shares in what had previously been a publicly owned company. Particularly in this case, and in some other cases in those years when the government initiated SIPs, certain provisos or restrictions were placed on the company being privatized. In this case, Air Canada was subject to four conditions: it would be subject to the Official Languages Act; it would maintain its corporate headquarters in Montreal; 75% of its voting shares had to be held by Canadians; and it had to maintain operational and overhaul centres in Winnipeg, Montreal, and Mississauga. This was the law, and they were also the conditions of the privatization.
The latter point of maintaining operational and overhaul centres in those three Canadian cities is what the legislation before us seeks to remove. It would no longer require that these jobs be kept in Canada.
Therefore, we can be very clear that the proposed legislation is not about creating jobs in Canada but about sending jobs out of Canada. There is no denying that. Certainly the government may point to other jobs being created in the aerospace sector, but it is very clear that the effect of the legislation before us is to allow, to facilitate, this company in sending jobs out of Canada.
As everyone knows, when conditions are put on a sale of anything, whatever that thing is, that is likely to have some impact on the price. A 2012 University of Calgary paper from the School of Public Policy stated this on privatization: “Whether [these] provisions were in the interests of Canadians or not, they probably reduced the initial share offering prices and governments’ sale proceeds.”
Because of these conditions, shareholders got the shares for less than they would have otherwise, and taxpayers got less money. To summarize, the Government of Canada sold Air Canada shares subject to certain conditions, which reduced the value of those shares but which the government felt at the time were worth the cost.
Recognizing that was how the privatization happened in 1988-89, it would seem obvious that as a matter of basic fairness to the Canadian taxpayers, we would expect that any subsequent removal of those conditions should not come for free, the removal in particular of the conditions around the requirement that Air Canada keep certain jobs in Canada. The removal of these conditions has, on the one hand, an economic cost for workers and taxpayers but, on the other hand, has an economic benefit for Air Canada. Effectively, the government will legislate windfall gains for Air Canada at the expense of workers and taxpayers, at the expense of ordinary people.
Why is the government doing this? Why would it pass a law that would absolve Air Canada of clearly stated commercial obligations that are long standing and allowed shareholders to acquire Air Canada at lower prices? Why would it do such a thing? It does not make sense, until we realize the other interests that are in place, in fact other interests that have been alluded to directly by government members. Again, these are not the interests of workers and taxpayers but the interests of another private company.
Air Canada has been sued by the governments of Quebec and Manitoba for its failure to live up to its obligations under the Air Canada Public Participation Act, which is the act that lays out the requirements that operational and overhaul centres be maintained in Winnipeg, Montreal, and Mississauga, as we have discussed. However, these governments have now both suspended their litigation because of some notionally unrelated but in fact very much related events. This appears to be an elaborate scheme aimed at bailing out a different group of shareholders, that is, Bombardier shareholders.
Bombardier is a company that all of us want to see survive and do well. However, certainly on this side of the House, we are more interested in protecting workers and taxpayers and not providing further windfall gains to company owners. The connection between windfall gains for Air Canada and windfall gains for Bombardier has already been well laid out by my colleague from Carlton Trail—Eagle Creek. It has been alluded to, but not clarified, by members of the government. In any event, it is worth going over one more time.
On February 17 of this year, Air Canada announced that it had started negotiations with Bombardier to purchase C Series aircraft, which are aircraft that Air Canada had not previously expressed an interest in. Then, on March 8, the minister put this bill on notice. The governments of Quebec and Manitoba suspended their litigation. It is hard to imagine them successfully resuming it if this legislation passes, the law under which they were suing having at that point been significantly altered.
Air Canada would receive the free removal of conditions of its privatization at the same time as it is exploring previously unplanned purchases from Bombardier. The government knows that a direct bailout of Bombardier is unlikely to be acceptable to the public at a time when Bombardier, like Air Canada, is out-sourcing jobs. Therefore, there may exist what we might call some form of an indirect bailout. The benefit of the removal of conditions flows from the government to Air Canada, and the benefit of a previously unplanned large purchase flows from Air Canada to Bombardier.
This seems to be the crux of the matter. We are not clear as to why or how, but we know that the benefit of the removal of conditions flows from the government to Air Canada, and the benefit of a previously unplanned large purchase flows from Air Canada to Bombardier.
Something in this connection was made explicit by the Quebec government when it discontinued its litigation against Air Canada. Here is what it said in a press release:
Subject to concluding final arrangements, the Government of Quebec has agreed to discontinue the litigation related to Air Canada's obligations regarding the maintenance of an overhaul and operational centre following Air Canada's agreement to collaborate with the Province to establish a Centre of Excellence for C Series....
Note the careful language here: “collaborate...to establish a Centre of Excellence for C Series”.
The government, again, will not acknowledge this connection. I asked one of the members, explicitly, what the connection is and why it is talking about these new investments in C Series in a debate about the Air Canada Public Participation Act. There was a bit of wink-wink, nudge-nudge as they talked about these things together, but they will not acknowledge the connection.
Well, what is going on seems fairly clear, given the timeline, given the benefits that are flowing to Air Canada from the government and then on from Air Canada to Bombardier.
It seems, therefore, that Bombardier is getting help from the government after all. Now, all of a sudden, it is claiming it does not need the help anymore. Here is a Financial Post story from March 23. It quoted a representative of Bombardier. This story came out, by the way, the day before this act was proposed, but certainly after it had been put on notice. Here is what a representative of Bombardier said:
Really, the federal funding would just be an extra endorsement for the program.… That’s really just an extra bonus that would be helpful but is very clearly not required.
Now, we are talking about a $1 billion bailout. That is an extra bonus that I am sure many of us could use, as well. However, this is quite a different tone from what we heard from the same company a few months ago.
I wonder if it is really that Bombardier did not need the money all along, or is it simply that by March 23 it was clear that the same benefit would be received, just perhaps by a different means, notably without the pesky conditions that might require real and substantial reform, without those trappings that might be associated with a more direct package of financial support?
I actually worked for the Department of Industry during the tenure of the last government. At the time, we were involved in bailing out a number of major auto companies. I got to know some of the members who are still in this place during those years. I know that, for those of us who are Conservative-minded, who believe in free markets, it was a very difficult decision for the government to be involved in bailing out car companies. Many Conservative-minded people may still not agree with that decision, but it is clear that there were some very particular conditions and circumstances operating at the time.
At the time, in 2009, the government undertook a very carefully constructed bailout approach. It did a few important things, though. It required reforms that ensured viability. It involved the best possible effort of the government to ensure that there would be some kind of meaningful return on the investments that were made. Part of the deal was a loan; part of the deal involved the acquisition of shares.
For those who believed that the bailout was necessary at that time, it was at least transparent. It was done in the least bad way, because it involved reform and it was set up in a way to try to ensure that there would not be a need for bailout in the future, that these companies would go on to be successful and continue to create jobs in Canada. Not to undermine the challenge of the decision at the time, but it is clear that to some extent it worked and those companies have continued to exist.
However, the novel approach we see here is what appears to be some form of an indirect bailout, benefits flowing to Bombardier via Air Canada, in a way that is not transparent, not accountable, and involves no reform, to a company that I should underline has received something approaching $4 billion, by some estimates, in various forms of government assistance since 1961.
I would just say that, if the government wants to be involved in supporting a private company, it should, at minimum, try to ensure that it is the last time it has to do it, and that there are reforms in place that ensure it is not going to be providing bailouts on and on.
The problem here is that there is this murkiness, this allusion to things that may be happening, but we do not know how they happen or why they happen.
I want to comment directly on some of the comments made by other members and offer some refutation.
We have heard a lot of interesting language by the other members who spoke, although not many members of the government have spoken to this issue.
They talk about modernizing the act. I believe one member told us that it is 2016, as if stating the current date is an argument for so many different things, not just the policy of gender parity in cabinet but also for this, and that all we have to do is state the current year to say that we are modernizing and moving forward. I do not think that selling out Canadian workers and taxpayers is modernization at all; rather, it takes us backward.
They have said that they are updating the act. Updating is not what this is. This is a substantive policy choice the government has made that betrays taxpayers and betrays workers.
In certain speeches, the government has made the point that there are costs associated with these conditions that Air Canada has to bear but that other private companies do not. The reality is that those conditions were associated with those shares being sold at a lower price, as I have already mentioned, but let us not forget that Air Canada has benefits as well that other companies do not have. Canada regulates its airline industry significantly, in a way that I think has very clearly been designed to protect the economic interests of Canadian carriers. We can debate the value of those various individual policies back and forth, but there is no doubt that those policies exist and that Air Canada has received certain advantages from government regulation as well. That is something we need to recognize and take into consideration.
In any event, this is simply a matter of fairness. Those were conditions that were imposed on Air Canada as a condition of its sale, and those who bought those shares knew exactly what was happening.
We have heard this argument of the importance of Air Canada's viability. There is no disputing that all of us want to see Air Canada, as well as Bombardier, be strong, create jobs in Canada, provide good service to Canadians, and provide choice in the marketplace as well, but there are many different things that could be done to improve Air Canada's viability. Some of my colleagues have mentioned examples of these already. Increasing the foreign ownership limit of Canadian-based airlines to 49% would be one option. Allowing more money to come into Canada instead of jobs going out of Canada would be a better way to improve competitiveness. Continuing to streamline immigration and customs processes and establishing a set of principles to guide airports when determining fees are another. Those are the kinds of reforms that would help Air Canada's competitiveness, and they would help the competitiveness of Canadian airlines in general.
I did not want to say just this on the point about these being costs that other airlines do not have. That is true of the Official Languages Act as well, yet we do not see any movement by the current government to remove the application of that act, so there will still be conditions on Air Canada that do not exist on other airlines, and I think they would understand why.
To summarize, conditions are being lifted, at a cost to and with no benefit to the taxpayer. Bombardier is getting business from Air Canada, and because there are no conditions, both companies are able to continue sending jobs out of this country. Air Canada gets something for nothing, Bombardier gets something for nothing, and the government thinks it is filing away a potential political headache.
However, the real question is this: who gets left behind?
It is the workers and the taxpayers. It is the ordinary folks. Those are the people who are getting left behind because the Liberals are sacrificing the principles of real economics and real free market economics for their own particular brand of crony capitalism.
Those of us on this side of the House believe deeply in the market mechanism, but the necessary condition is fairness, and this bill is not fair. It is not fair to workers who will lose their jobs. It is not fair to the taxpayers who could have received more for Air Canada's privatization. It is good for the elite, but it is not fair for the people, and that is why we are opposed to it.