Mr. Speaker, this session is certainly kicking off in high gear. That is an image that fits in nicely with the auto industry theme.
This being my first speech since Parliament resumed, I would like to start by saying how glad I am to be here. It is always an honour to recall the mandate I was given by the voters of Trois-Rivières. They entrusted me with a very important mission, namely to be an opposition MP, a parliamentarian who will hold the government responsible and accountable for its decisions and its legislation. As members of Parliament, we do not necessarily control the legislative agenda. However, we do everything in our power to make sure the bills tabled here are as good as possible at the end of the process and that we, as members, did what we could to improve them.
I would say that there are three types of bills that we debate. There are bills that garner the unanimous support of the House, something that happens all too infrequently. Bill S-2 probably falls into the second category of bills whose main objectives and principles enjoy a general consensus. In other words, we have to work on ironing out the details to get the best possible wording and best implementation possible. Bill S-2 does not fall into the third category of bills, but we will likely see one that does before the end of this session. It is the kind of bill that could not set the parties further apart. Sometimes, often even, when I take part in these jousting matches, I will attack the proposed ideas with guns blazing. Such is the nature of our work in the House. However, I never, ever attack people. It is not lost on me that the people who voted for me are no different than the people who voted for every member of the House, regardless of their political stripe. We have a duty to work together to find the best wording.
It is also appropriate, whenever the House rises, to thank all of the staff who make our work possible. This time, I would like to do it now, at the beginning of the session, because after six years of working in Parliament, I understand just how important the work these people do is and just how much we ask of them, given the nature of our work. They return at the beginning of the session with a big smile and the desire to once again serve Parliament and democracy. They deserve to be commended and thanked in advanced.
Let us move on to Bill S-2, which deals with motor safety. I am not the only one, but I believe that I am well placed to talk about this subject because I live just a few kilometres from Trois-Rivières, but the city's airport does not offer flights from Trois-Rivières to Ottawa. Trois-Rivières can be reached by bus, but even that requires transfers, and there is no passenger train service at all. The only realistic transportation option available to me is travelling by car.
That means that year after year, week after week, I have to drive between 800 and 1,000 km a week. I am sure others here travel even greater distances. I am not complaining. I am merely pointing out that, as I zoom along the highway or make my way through cities, always staying well within the posted speed limits of course, I unfortunately see quite a number of accidents. Some of these accidents are caused by driving errors, but others are caused by mechanical problems, and we are hoping to put an end to that type of accident.
There was a time when almost everyone could make minor repairs to their own vehicles because engines were rather simple. Those days are long gone. Even at the dealership, most cars must now be hooked up to a computer to identify the problem. Then the mechanics can do the necessary repairs or maintenance.
The automobile market has changed considerably. Let me go on a little rant here. I will restrain myself considering that we just got back. Once again, the government is introducing a bill that overuses the word harmonization. The Conservatives were known for doing the same. Bill S-2 seeks to harmonize motor vehicle safety practices between Canada and the United States. That is fine, but just to be clear, in Canada, every time we talk about harmonization it is understood that we are playing catch-up. When it comes to safety, our laws always fall short of U.S. legislation.
We could try to find a way to be leaders, but instead we play catch-up; Bill S-2 is a fine example of that. The bill has merit, as I said to the minister, and we will vote in favour of it at second reading so that it can be further reviewed in committee, where stakeholders will develop the best bill possible. However, it would be interesting to see how Canada might become a leader instead of always playing catch-up.
I already brought this up in the first question I was able to ask the minister, but I would like to start by comparing the bill's intentions, which are laudable, to the actual situation at Transport Canada as described in the Auditor General's last audit on oversight of passenger vehicle safety. I will quote the audit report because it articulates, far better than I ever could, a reality I am very concerned about:
Overall, we found that Transport Canada did not develop motor vehicle safety standards to respond to emerging risks and issues in a timely manner. It generally waited for the United States to change its motor vehicle safety standards before modifying Canadian standards. The Department often limited consultations to the automotive industry. We also found that it did not have complete collision and injury data to inform its decisions. We could not always determine how the Department used evidence and research to develop or amend safety standards. Transport Canada did not plan or fund its research and regulatory activities for the longer term.
No matter how wonderful the bill is, if Transport Canada does not have the means and tools necessary to ensure motor vehicle safety, we have a serious problem in Canada. Bill S-2 will not necessarily be the answer to solving this problem, but rather the administration of Transport Canada's budget, under the leadership of the minister himself.
What about all the new technology that cars now have? Is it not better that we be at the forefront, rather than lagging behind? I reread the Minister of Transport's mandate letter, and there is not a single word about vehicle safety. Fortunately, the minister went above and beyond his mandate to bring forward legislation in this area, but even so, it is troubling that such a huge issue was not included in his mandate letter.
When I mentioned budget cuts, I was referring to a decrease in funding for crash tests. That is probably one of the first things that comes to mind when we talk about motor vehicle safety.
I am sure everyone can picture what it looks like when cars smash into things at controlled speeds in accidents staged to see how the vehicle reacts, how well the safety features absorb the shock, and how well passengers are protected.
A number of studies have been done on the repercussions for passengers in the back seat, but they need follow-up. That is another thing I hope we can revisit in our committee work. Basically, we agree with many of the new powers set out in Bill S-2, but if those powers are not properly managed by the department, we will not necessarily solve any problems.
Let us talk about which of the new powers that Bill S-2 would give to the minister actually make sense. There is a whole chain of events. I am sure that we have all at some point received a recall notice. I got one recently, but I will not give the company free publicity. I got a recall notice informing me that I was the owner of such and such a vehicle manufactured in such and such a year, that there was a particular problem with my model, and that if I wanted to find out if my vehicle was affected, I should go to the company website with my serial number and check.
Of course I was glad to get the letter, but I have to say that getting that kind of letter automatically worries people. I went to the website right away to find out if I was affected by the recall and if my vehicle was still safe to operate. That is what happens when a company issues a recall. It is pretty much the end point of a whole process. By then, the company has received complaints, done its reviews, analyses, tests, and studies, and found that there is indeed a problem it needs to address. Often in the past, years have gone by before a company acknowledges that there is actually a problem.
One example is the problem General Motors had with its ignition system that led to a recall. It was not until many years after the company started getting complaints and concerns that owners got their recall notice, almost 10 years. In the meantime, while the company was doing its tests to find out if there actually was a cause and effect relationship, accidents happened, and sometimes people were injured. There were even some deaths.
We certainly cannot be opposed to giving the minister the authority to expedite the process and to request that a recall be issued. We must also ensure that with the funding for Transport Canada the minister will be equipped to do these analyses and to come up with conclusive findings in a relatively short time. That is the difference between good intentions and good management. I share a good number of the concerns expressed by my Conservative colleague who spoke just before me about cuts to a certain number of areas. We were told earlier that $5 million was added to the budget for collision testing. We would all be inclined to applaud, because that is another $5 million. However, we would be forgetting that the budget had previously been cut by 59%. Basically, they cut the budget by 59% and then proudly announce that they are putting back $5 million. It seems to me that there is a difference between rhetoric and reality and that we should be examining the whole problem overall.
It goes without saying that the government should be given the power to order a company to correct defects or non-compliances. It is the logical next step to the power to order recalls. In general, auto manufacturers and importers are ordered to assume the cost of parts and repairs. There may be a few exceptions, but usually the industry does not argue when a manufacturing defect is found, since it wants to protect its reputation. It also goes without saying that the government should have the power to require that these repairs be made before the parts or vehicles are are sold to consumers. That seems like the minimum that should be required.
As an aside, I would like to talk about the amendment proposed in the Senate that many car dealership owners came to talk to me about. In theory, if the government harmonizes the Canadian legislation with that of the United States, it must also provide economic support for car dealers since, for now, most of them have to maintain an inventory of vehicles that have already been purchased from the manufacturer but that cannot be sold because they have been recalled.
In some cases, for example with the Takata airbags, which were manufactured for many auto companies, the dealers are aware that there is a problem, but they cannot necessarily repair all the vehicles overnight. That means that all of those cars are just sitting on the lot and the dealers cannot sell them to get the money back on their investment. We therefore have to give this issue some serious thought.
I understand the proposal made by the minister, who said that this is not a straightforward security issue. However, if the bill truly seeks to harmonize the Canadian legislation with that of the United States, we might need to consider this issue because the Canadian and American auto markets are highly integrated.
As for the power to require more information from manufacturers, we are not against it, but when I hear the ministers tell me that all reasonable questions from inspectors should be answered, I think we are having it both ways. Once again, we have legislation stacked with good intentions, but the meaning of the word “reasonable” remains unclear. Whether in French or in English, the word is open to interpretation. What can we do, then, but insist legislatively or legally on the meaning of the word “reasonable”? What seems reasonable to one person is not necessarily reasonable to me.
Therefore, it seems to me that there should be a way for us to collectively agree on a wording that would say “obligation to answer all reasonable questions that directly affect motor vehicle safety”. There is a way to establish guidelines that would clarify that. It is exactly the same kind of vague vocabulary that is found in other bills, such as those on employment insurance, that speak of “suitable” employment. I think that we ought to do away with the doublespeak that distracts us from the purpose of the bill.
There are a number of things I would have still liked to say, but I will have the opportunity to come back to them when I answer questions or when the bill goes to committee. I repeat that the NDP will support this bill at second reading, in the hope that we can help to improve it substantially. We will meet again for the vote at third reading. I would also like to ensure that all stakeholders involved in motor vehicle safety will be heard and that their comments, not just those from companies, will be taken into account.
Of course, companies are major players, but we should also be able to hear from consumer associations and police associations. I will stop there because the axe has just fallen. I am available to answer questions.