Madam Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C‑56, which has just passed an important milestone. However, it is with a touch of disappointment that we note that a super closure motion has prevented the Standing Committee on Finance, and perhaps even the Standing Committee on Industry and Technology, from doing the work that needed to be done in terms of competition. I will come back to that later. In less than 24 hours, the committee determined the fate of changes that could have been made to Bill C‑56 even though there were plenty of good recommendations from committee members and witnesses.
I would remind the House that Bill C‑56 was the first bill to be announced, even before Parliament resumed in September. There was not enough time to consider the government's proposed solution and the expert testimony. Only one solution was put forward in part 1 of Bill C‑56, namely an amendment to the Excise Tax Act to include a 5% GST rebate, based on the sale price, to builders of rental apartment buildings.
I want to talk about housing because there has been a housing crisis in my riding for about 15 years now. The same goes for a number of my colleagues. Federal programs just do not work for the regions, especially not for my region, Abitibi—Témiscamingue.
Let us do the math. Building a four-unit development in a city like Ville‑Marie in Témiscamingue, population 2,600, is like building 2,000 units in Calgary. Building eight units in La Sarre is like building 1,800 in Montreal. Building 16 in Amos is like building 1,200 in Winnipeg. Building 32 in Rouyn-Noranda is like building 2,250 in Toronto.
Unfortunately, our programs are not designed for regional realities. Fixing the labour shortage means fixing it in the regions and dealing with the public land use issue. More often than not, federal programs focus on impressive stats, but when they fall short of their targets because there is no new housing in the regions, what is the point of the targets? This is simple math, and it may seem simplistic, but it reflects the importance of adapting programs to suit projects in remote regions, including Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation programs.
Our region has been experiencing a housing shortage for the past 15 years. Since 2005, Abitibi—Témiscamingue has reached a healthy balance, a 3% vacancy rate, only once. The vacancy rate has been below 1% seven times. In the last three years, the average price of a two-bedroom apartment has risen from $681 in October 2019 to $845 in October 2022. That is a 25% increase. On top of that, the average price of a two-bedroom built since the early 2000s is $1,250. Without a doubt, this reflects the higher construction costs in the regions.
It is even worse with the construction that is going on right now. When I look at the government's current measures, I do not see anything that will reverse this trend, other than an empty promise for something that could happen down the road under the next government. It definitely will not happen before 2025. I do like the parenthetical interest in co-operative housing. However, those measures are also being put off until later.
It is also important to remember that, in the regions, particularly in Abitibi—Témiscamingue, the majority of our buildings were constructed between between 1960 and 1980. This means that affordable housing, including the units owned by co-operatives, needs to be renovated. Adapting programs would also help provide our regions, including mine, with the tools they need to become economic drivers. It also means addressing concerns about housing, particularly in terms of upgrading. In that regard, I am still waiting for help and for tools from the government.
Part 2 of Bill C‑56 deals with amendments to the Competition Act.
The government could have gone even further and used this as an opportunity to consider modernizing the Competition Act, a crucial subject that was addressed in exceptional circumstances. The committee's recent study took place in an unfortunate context marked by the adoption of a super closure motion in the House the week before, as stipulated in Government Business No. 30. The government deprived itself of the opportunity to consider recommendations from the Standing Committee on Industry and Technology, comments gathered in the competition commissioner's consultations and from his excellent brief. This is really unfortunate. The Bloc Québécois has been calling for a comprehensive reform of the Competition Act for years, if not a decade.
It is essential to note the challenges that the Standing Committee on Finance has faced. A single meeting with witnesses was held on the evening of November 27 and lasted until 10 p.m. Members were required to present their amendments, translated and certified by legal clerks, by noon the next day. That tight schedule hampered us from conducting a serious study and properly taking into account the witnesses' observations. Unfortunately, the substitution of Parliament for backroom discussions in the negotiations on closure between the government and the NDP contributed to this situation. Democracy did not benefit from all this.
Despite these challenges, the committee managed to adopt a few important amendments, including some that are worth mentioning. First, we chose to considerably increase the monetary value of fines for serious offences under the Competition Act. The cap is $25 million for a first offence, with harsher penalties for repeat offenders. The purpose is to deter reprehensible behaviour. The existing fines were often perceived as the cost of doing business and did not really have a deterrent effect.
Second, we adjusted the legal threshold required to find a major player guilty of abusing a dominant position to reduce competition. At present, there is a dual burden of proof: It has to be shown that an illegal act was committed and also that this act effectively reduced competition. However, proving that something reduced competition is often difficult, rendering the Competition Act rather ineffective. Our amendment to the bill makes it possible to go after questionable conglomerates and simplifies the law and the prosecution process by making this component more effective.
Third, we gave the commissioner of competition the power to independently undertake a market study. Although the existing act gave the commissioner extensive powers during such studies, he could only carry them out at the request of the Minister of Industry. As we know, the minister is a very busy man, so it is just as well to enable the commissioner to do this himself. Going forward, he will be able to carry out studies more independently, strengthening his ability to proactively monitor and regulate the market.
Lastly, the Bloc Québécois introduced an important amendment that targets the adverse effect that a lack of competition can have on consumers. It is crucial that major players be prohibited from taking advantage of their dominant position or quasi-monopoly over a market, so we can prevent consumers from being exploited through predatory pricing. At present, the Competition Act targets the source of the lack of competition without directly tackling its harmful effects on consumers. Abuses committed over the years, enabled by a lack of regulation and a law that was clearly biased toward industry concentration, left the government indifferent. In committee, this crucial Bloc Québécois amendment aimed to fix this flaw and was adopted unanimously.
This also applies to housing. Unfortunately, for too long, there has been little to no oversight. We have seen very shady conglomerates take over affordable housing that may have been in need of renovation and turn it into unaffordable housing. There have been examples of this in my region and in big cities. That is what helped kill affordable housing, especially in the rental market. It is just as well that the bill tackles this.
There has been a laissez-faire attitude about housing, the oil industry, banks and telecoms for a very long time. This is partly why prices have increased so much.
In conclusion, even though the process was marred by unusual time constraints, the amendments we made to the Competition Act are a step toward more effective regulation that is adapted to current market realities. We hope that these changes will help promote healthier competition, deter illegal practices, and protect consumers' interests.
Nevertheless, I urge the government to give us the opportunity to do what we so desperately want, which is to thoroughly update the Competition Act over the coming year, rather slip it into a mammoth bill. While we are at it, can we overhaul the Copyright Act, too, as well as the many others that fall within the Minister of Industry's purview?