Mr. Speaker, I cannot really say that I am pleased to be debating Bill because, in actual fact, the bill has very little substance.
Let us be frank: as it currently stands the bill is not very credible because it is a bare bones proposal in response to something the himself observed during the 2008 election campaign. If he believes that consumers are being totally ripped off at the pump, why wait two years? The fact is that the government is acting grudgingly, and so the bill, as it currently stands, is mere window dressing and will simply shift the financial burden of the rising cost of gas onto retailers.
The Conservatives are on a witch hunt and are cracking down on independent retailers who, in their eyes, are alleged fraudsters. It is nothing but smoke and mirrors. Why does the bill not contain measures to support healthy competition rather than volume-based measures that would be extremely expensive for consumers?
The bill does not appear to deal with the real problem. There are few documented cases of retailers tampering with gas pumps, and they have no incentive to do so.
Let me share a few telling facts with you. The oil sector is ranked second when it comes to playing by the rules. So why would these kinds of measures apply only to this sector and not others? Are my colleagues aware that losses due to meter issues are in the order of $8 million, not $20 million as the government asserts? Currently, Measurement Canada inspects 34,000 gas pumps nationwide every two years, which accounts for a quarter of the 130,000 pumps across Canada. Enforcing this bill would mean hiring some 300 additional inspectors under contract to retailers. This would cost independent retailers between $50 and $200 per pump. Who will the bill be passed on to?
Most gasoline retailers are small, independent businesses, which in fact operate on very small margins, as we know. The additional cost of these inspections would certainly hurt their bottom line. In switching the onus of inspection to the retailer, the demand for private inspectors would increase drastically. I and many of my Liberal colleagues are concerned that retailers in northern and rural communities may not have access to the private inspectors required to ensure that they can stay within the letter and the spirit of the law.
If the government wants to keep going in this direction, would it not be better to review the way in which the law is enforced in order to ensure that the cost is not simply passed along to consumers? The ideal would probably be to increase the resources at Measurement Canada’s disposal. We need to face facts. Does the government have the resources or the money necessary to implement a measure like this? Independent retailers and consumers should not have to pay for this bill.
We will also have to ensure that it is uniformly enforced. My fear is that the penalties could be arbitrary, and that is why the inspectors should be trained according to very specific guidelines. The inspectors should definitely be under a very clear code of practice.
There is another point. In order to reduce certain difficulties for retailers, why not provide a 30-day grace period, as suggested by my colleague from ? The equipment these retailers use is not infallible, and sometimes they may not know that the readings are faulty. They should not be considered automatically guilty.
If the government were truly concerned with helping Canadians at the pumps, it could turn its attention to any number of issues, such as refinery closures and the anemic state of competition at the refinery level. In fact, when it comes to higher gasoline prices, the himself has said that there is nothing the government can do to help Canadians.
In the three elections since the has been leader of the Conservative Party, he has made no less than three specific commitments to help Canadians with ever-increasing fuel prices. Members will remember that in 2004, lest we forget, the Conservatives promised to eliminate the GST on gasoline prices above 85¢ a litre when they came to power. I do not think that happened. In 2008, they promised to lower the diesel excise tax. I do not believe that happened either.
I think the real reason behind the legislation being introduced right now is so the government can pretend to be helping consumers while they complain that prices are rising.
At this stage and in its current form, I see the fairness at the pumps act more like the Conservative farce at the pumps act.
A responsible government that really had Canadians’ interests at heart, including the price of fuel, would focus in particular on the competition among the refineries and look at the Competition Act. The important thing is to make the market more effective and competitive, as the Liberal government proposed in 2005.
How is it that despite the increase in prices and the industry’s claims that supply is very low, we see refineries closing? Why does the Conservative government remain impassive in the face of such a situation?
It is in the interests of Canadians that the House review whole parts of this bill and tailor them to deal with the real problem, which the Conservative government is trying to hide.
When a sampling was done of the gas pumps in this country, it was discovered that 94% of them were within specifications and only 6% were out of tolerance. Out of that 6%, one-third, or 2%, were actually delivering a little too much fuel to the consumer. The other 4%, in other words, 4% out of 100%, were delivering a little less fuel and a little outside of tolerance.
In terms of the devices that Measurement Canada is responsible for monitoring, measuring and inspecting, gas pumps are among the most reliable devices in this country. The question is why the government felt that it needed to legislate, through Bill , the need to measure pump accuracy when the numbers were certainly extremely respectable. My guess is that the government wanted to do some grandstanding. It even gave it the name, “fairness at the pumps act”, which sort of left a hint that somebody was being unfair. Unfortunately, the retailers had to wear that name when, in reality, the situation was really very respectable.
From my point of view, the government has created a bill and has put us through the hoops when in reality there was very little need to create such a bill as Bill . In the end, it has smeared retailers and will end up costing Canadians additional sums because of all the inspectors required to carry out the aim of this legislation.
Mr. Speaker, as the Bloc Québécois industry critic, I had an opportunity to follow progress on Bill in the spring and to hear testimony at the committee meetings.
Bill amends the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act.
Although the bill has not generated a lot of controversy, nonetheless, overall, it could have gone a lot farther.
In fact, that is why my colleague from introduced Bill . That bill is particularly important given that Bill still does not allow the Competition Bureau to conduct inquiries on its own initiative.
My colleague therefore introduced Bill to give the Competition Bureau more teeth, so it can initiate inquiries on its own initiative.
It still has to wait for a complaint before undertaking an inquiry. This is a classic response from the Competition Bureau: a complaint has to be filed in order for an inquiry to be started. As a result, Bill still does not address one of the major issues, the appearance of collusion in the oil industry.
Although the Bloc Québécois expressed support for the bill, as I said in my last speech in the spring, that does not mean that it is sufficient. Moreover, the clause-by-clause consideration of the bill did not result in many amendments. The amendments that were made related more to secondary issues. Personally, I think that even though the bill does not have as many teeth as we would have liked, it is hard to be against motherhood, particularly when we are trying to provide better protection for the public.
Even though we think it is in fact high time to make changes to the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act, Bill could give the Competition Bureau tools for battling companies that might want to profit from their dominant position in the market to rip off consumers.
The good thing about Bill is that from now on, the onus will be on the trader to prove they are not guilty. As well, there may be additional penalties if the trader continues to operate in violation of the law.
But what is more important, to my mind, is that the law will allow the names of offending businesses to be posted and announced publicly. In an area like gasoline sales, if a trader is convicted, we can bet that the retailer will want to remedy the situation quickly. Information moves fast in social media and neighbourhoods, and there are also service stations in various locations, on almost every corner, and so it will be easy for consumers to switch from one business to another when they see that the retail price of gas is higher in one location.
In addition, the amendment to the Weights and Measures Act will allow for much higher fines for offenders. Under the new provisions of the act, inspectors appointed by the government will be authorized to enter premises that they have reasonable grounds to examine and to seize or detain anything in the place, to use any computer or communication system in the place and to prepare a document based on the data. They may also prohibit access to the place and require that faulty equipment be shut down.
Bill is not intended to instill fear in traders, but rather to make improvements to legislation that no longer meets modern standards. It is quite appropriate in 2010 for inspectors to ensure that consumers are not being shortchanged.
In my last speech in this House on Bill , I remarked that in committee certain questions would be asked regarding things that we would like to see included in this bill.
It is a tremendous opportunity for us as parliamentarians to give the bill some teeth and allow the Competition Bureau to launch inquiries of its own accord.
For a number of years, we have also been calling for a petroleum monitoring agency, which would closely monitor gas prices and tackle any attempts at collusion or unjustified price hikes. The Bloc Québécois is not coming up with anything new here. For years now, we have cited the recommendations in the November 2003 report of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology.
The federal government has never done anything to assist consumers in this area, and it has to some extent let the opportunity to institute a petroleum monitoring system slip by. In spite of this, I reiterate that this is a step in the right direction.
Setting aside Bill , the Bloc is convinced more than ever that the industry must contribute its fair share. With the skyrocketing rise in energy prices and oil companies’ profits, we are witnessing a real across-the-board economic bloodletting for the benefit of the oil companies. The overly generous tax benefits for oil companies must end.
We need to be prepared because by 2012, 11 car manufacturers intend to put about 30 fully electric or rechargeable hybrid models on the market. These cars will be more reliable and fuel-efficient and cost much less to operate than gasoline-powered cars.
I do not want to stray from the objectives of Bill , but for the Bloc Québécois, any discussion on oil consumption absolutely must include a genuine plan and restructuring of the sector that focuses on achieving the following three things.
So once again, here are the three steps that must be taken in order to have legislation that truly has more teeth: first, the oil industry needs disciplining, and this can be achieved by way of a tougher Competition Act. Second, the oil industry must contribute by being made to pay its fair share in taxes. Lastly, we need to reduce our reliance on oil by, for instance, providing incentives to consumers to encourage them to buy electric cars.
We must be prepared, because electric cars will be available soon enough. So we should offer assistance for municipalities to install charging stations. We should also do further research on the batteries of these future vehicles so that they keep their charge longer.
We must implement better measures to prevent fraud, as proposed in Bill . Having measures like these and a comprehensive action plan will enable us to come out on top.
In conclusion, I will briefly present the position of the Bloc Québécois.
The Bloc Québécois supports Bill in principle. However, this bill does not directly address the problems of collusion, such as the problems that recently came to light in Quebec, nor does it provide ways to effectively predict sudden increases in gas prices.
Therefore, the Bloc Québécois believes that we still need to look at ways to effectively address rising gas prices through Bill , which we introduced.
In addition, the Competition Act still does not allow the Competition Bureau to conduct inquiries on its own initiative. A complaint must be filed, because if there is no complaint, the Competition Bureau does not take action, does not do anything.
The Bloc Québécois is also calling for the creation of a petroleum monitoring agency to closely monitor gas prices and to deal with attempts to collude and with unjustified price hikes.
That is the Bloc's position. I want to repeat that in principle, we support Bill , which we are debating today.
Mr. Speaker, I am rising to speak to Bill . The short title is the fairness at the pumps act. One would presume that fairness at the pumps refers to consumer protection and that we are talking about fairness to consumers generally.
Although there are some good measures in the bill, I would say that, generally speaking, consumers are at risk in any number of areas. The NDP has consistently called for a number of initiatives to protect consumers more broadly. These initiatives include having a minister responsible for consumer affairs; strengthening the Competition Bureau, tackling credit cards independently, not just through voluntary measures that credit card companies put in place; putting health and safety measures in place that protect consumers from imported goods; and finally, improving labelling so that consumers know when they are buying genetically modified products.
With respect to fairness at the pumps, I think this is a small measure to adopt in attempting to protect consumers.
I want to place the reason for this legislation in context.
Back in May 2008, an article called “Hosed at the Pumps” appeared in the Ottawa Citizen. The article said that the federal government was aware that there were any number of violations at the pumps. It stated, “A Citizen investigation shows that between Jan. 1, 1999, and Aug. 28, 2007, nearly 5% of gas pumps tested in Canada—about one pump in 20—failed government inspections by dispensing less fuel than they should”.
This relates to consumer fairness in that Canadians were going to the gas pumps and paying more for the product, because they did not receive the amount that they should have received.
The article goes on to state:
|| And while some faulty pumps give out more fuel than they charge for, more often than not it is consumers--not the retailers--who get hosed, government inspection records show.
|| The problem of faulty pumps appears to be an industry-wide phenomenon. About 30% of all gas vendors tested have had at least one pump flunk an inspection by shortchanging consumers, according to the inspection reports.
There is a lot more detail here, but I want to go on a little further in the article. It said that sometimes consumers are shortchanged, sometimes they get a benefit; there are fluctuations, and there is a limit set for acceptable fluctuations.
The article further states:
|| The small fluctuations might be less of a concern if the measurement errors evened out. In theory, consumers who come up short on slow-running pumps should be balanced by those who benefit from extra gas from fast pumps.
|| But the inspection reports reveal a puzzling trend: Canadian consumers are squeezed by faulty pumps far more often than vendors. When a gas pump fails a measurement test, 74% of the time it is the motorist who is disadvantaged by the error, and not the retailer, according to the inspection data.
|| Odder still, the results of pump inspections in the U. S. seem to run counter to the Canadian numbers. Newspaper reports on state government inspection of gas pumps suggest that consumers and retailers in the U.S. tend to be affected by pump errors in roughly equal proportion, with motorists getting a slight advantage in some states.
|| Not so here in Canada. Here, consumers end up on [the] short end of the nozzle three times as often as retailers. “There is no realistic possibility of these errors being so slanted against consumers just by chance,'” said Richard Shillington, a statistician with the economic consulting firm Infometrica, who reviewed the numbers on behalf of the Citizen.
|| “It's off the scale. It's one in billions,” he said of the odds of this happening. “But that does not mean,” he adds, “that the errors are necessarily attributable to unscrupulous vendors. There could be procedural or mechanical reasons that would make more pumps run slow rather than fast.”
In the article's conclusion it states:
|| By using the most conservative figures, pumps that fell outside the tolerance zone would have shortchanged consumers by at least $17 million annually if projected across the entire industry. At the same time, however, fast pumps would give out $8 million in free gas. On the small percentage of pumps outside the tolerance zone, consumers would come out about $9 million behind.
That was in 2008.
We are now at the end of 2010, and we are still looking at legislation that addresses fairness at the pumps.
I want to touch on the response to that report. The article refers to government inspections carried out between 1999 and 2000. For a number of years, government inspections continued to demonstrate that Canadian consumers were being short-changed at the pumps.
It is 10 years later, and we are talking about these old numbers, and we are finally dealing with legislation in the House. That is unacceptable.
I want to acknowledge the good work that the member for has done on this. He has been on this file for a number of years. Whether it is gas prices or the unevenness of measurements at the pump, he has been looking into what is required for consumer protection.
Bill is an act to amend the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act. The short title is “fairness at the pumps act”. According to the legislative summary, the aim of the bill is to amend certain provisions of the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act to provide greater protection for consumers from inaccurate measurements at gas pumps and other measuring devices.
The bill seeks to achieve this objective by introducing administrative monitoring policies for contraventions under the acts, increasing maximum fines for offences, introducing a new fine for repeated offences, introducing mandatory inspection frequencies for measuring devices, and proposing the appointment of non-government inspectors to be trained and certified by Measurements Canada to conduct mandatory inspections of measuring devices.
I want to talk a little about the administrative monitoring policies. Many see this as progress. The administrative monitoring policies allow for a more flexible and proportionate response to instances of non-compliance. There are varying degrees of these classifications, from minor to serious or very serious, with specified maximum penalties for each level. It allows for a rapid response to these violations, as opposed to having to go through the process of laying criminal charges.
Bill proposes to increase the accountability of retailers for the accuracy of their measuring devices by requiring them to have their devices inspected at regular intervals. Mandatory inspection frequencies, which are common in the majority of industrial nations, for example, France, Germany, and most U.S. states, are proposed for measuring devices used in eight trade sectors: retail petroleum, downstream or wholesale petroleum, dairy, retail food, fishing, logging, grain and field crops, and mining. Other sectors will be added to this list in the future, depending on the results of stakeholder consultations.
There is much more in the bill; this is a brief summary of some aspects of it.
I want to touch on the use of authorized private sector service providers. We are going to see a shift as a result of having private-sector inspectors carry out these inspections. The government has said that this is partly because it is going to increase the number of inspections required.
The NDP feels strongly that inspections need to be done in house with government workers. In this way, we have an arm's-length, non-interested party performing these inspections.
Under this fairness at the pumps act, the will have the ability to appoint non-government inspectors of authorized service providers to perform inspections. This will allow Measurement Canada to use its resources strictly to enforce its mandate.
The mandatory inspections could be conducted by authorized service providers. The Measurement Canada inspectors will continue to assess marketplace performance through independent inspections, respond to complaints of suspected inaccurate measurements, and perform follow-up inspections of authorized service providers to ensure that they are doing their jobs correctly.
The Measurement Canada inspectors will be solely responsible for enforcement actions. Fees for the independent inspection services would be determined by market forces, ensuring that there is competition in the marketplace and that retailers will be charged fairly for these services.
It is estimated that the number of annual gas pump inspections would increase from 8,000 to approximately 65,000.
Although there would be more inspections, they will be carried out within the private sector and one would question the impact on the retail sector itself at having to pick up the cost. According to this, these fees will be determined by market forces. That sounds like something that could cause some problems for some in the retail sector.
The NDP has raised a couple of problems with the bill. I know the member for attempted to make some amendments at the committee stage of the bill and was not successful. The problems the member for Windsor West has identified are the privatization of the inspection service by mandating frequent inspections that must be carried out by the newly created authorized service provider private companies. Mandating private inspections will now increase from 8,000 per year to 65,000. I did talk about what that impact might be on the retailers.
There is no ombudsman office to evaluate problems or investigate complaints. This is a very important aspect that we have been on record about, and I will talk about when we first raised that. There is no refund or compensation for consumers who are ripped off and no refunds or restitutions on the taxes collected in the phantom gasoline purchases.
On these last two points, since 1999, we know consumers have been overpaying in a significant number of cases. However, how do we go back to consumers over 10 years and say that they overpaid their gas bills for the last 10 years? There is not even any recognition of that and there is no acknowledgement as well on the taxes that were collected on these so-called phantom gasoline purchases. We have had people paying more at the gas pumps and the government has been collecting taxes on phantom gas. Therefore, we have other problems with the bill.
In April, the member for called on the government to take immediate action. He said that gas pump problems were exposed more than two years ago by a media investigation and the government waited far too long to respond. He said the government was allowing the thieves to keep what they stole over the past few years. The member for Windsor West is very passionate about this file.
He went on to say:
|| What is outrageous is that the government potentially collected taxes from consumers who were paying for phantom gasoline....The question that must be asked is whether the government earned tax revenues from this short-changing of Canadian motorists and, if so, how much?
|| To make matters worse, the “Fairness at the Pumps Act” will further remove the federal government from the inspection process and will essentially allow the oil industry to police itself.
We have seen this in other cases. The do-not-call list comes to mind, where the industry was policing itself. We have seen how ineffective that has been in terms of monitoring that list. We have little faith that turning this over to the private sector is going to ensure that not only are retailers protected, but that consumers are protected as well. I absolutely support the member for calling for these inspections to be carried out with government employees.
In 2008, which is how long New Democrats have been raising this, during a question period exchange, the member for raised the issue around this report. In his question he said:
||—the Ottawa Citizen has reported that one in twenty pumps is not correctly calibrated and that consumers are paying the price. In addition to shortchanging people at the pumps, the big oil companies are not even giving people the gas they paid for. At $1.30 a litre, every cent counts. When will this government create an ombudsman position to protect consumers from the big oil companies?
The minister of industry at the time came back and said a bunch of other things that did not do much around answering the question, but he did say they would not be creating the position of ombudsman.
Although the act does put in place some measures, it simply does not guarantee the kind of protection for which New Democrats have called. One would wonder why we have not seen this ombudsperson who would give Canadians a bit more faith that their interests were being well looked after.
Perhaps we will not get one because people are afraid of what the ombudsperson will speak up about. We have seen this with Veterans Affairs. The ombudsperson has done a very good job, is well respected by veterans, but his term will not be renewed. If we do not get an ombudsperson around consumer protection, is it because people are afraid we would get a very good ombudsperson who would speak up and protect consumers?
It makes no sense that those kinds of things are not included. They would give Canadians more confidence.
Because we were unable to get the amendments we were looking for at the committee stage, New Democrats simply cannot support the bill without some of those other measures and protections in place. Therefore, we will be voting against it.
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to stand today to talk about this particular bill.
At first glance I noticed that we have this wonderful way of playing with titles in this House with certain aspects of legislation. Sometimes it means a significant amendment to other acts or it may be an act upon itself but we tend to title them in a way that, I suppose, sells.
A perfect illustration of what I am talking about is Bill . Basically we are making sure that the calibration is correct and that people are not being unfairly gouged at the pumps because of the measurements and weights that are involved in determining how much gas is being put through the pump.
As my hon. colleagues pointed out, a very small fraction of retail outlets, that do it unwittingly, are subject to shortchanging their customers. In this particular situation, that is what this bill tries to amend.
The title of the bill, and this is the best part, is fairness at the pumps act. In relative debate, we have been talking about the price of gas now for the past 5 to 10 years extensively. We all know why. The price of oil rises and the price at the retail pump is extremely high, well over a $1. In my riding in central Newfoundland, it is some of the highest in the country, exceeding $1.20 in certain cases. I think that in Labrador it is even more than that. I think we get the idea.
Therefore, fairness at the pumps act leads us to believe that fundamental action has taken place so that the price of the fuel is coming down in a particular area. That is not particularly the case here. What this would do is help calibrate the machines and ensure the retail outlets are following suit.
In this particular situation, they may be sideswiped by some of these regulations, which I will get to in a moment. I had to start by saying that the fairness at the pumps act is not an apt description. It is kind of discovering an old t-shirt in our closet. We take it out to clean the floor and call it ShamWow because it sounds good, but it is still an old t-shirt.
In this particular case, some of the fundamental points provided in Bill deal with, in one instance, the administrative monetary penalties. That is for contraventions under the act. That is a big part of this for the particular retail outlets.
Let us not be led astray here. This is not for the average consumer. This is for the retail outlets and, in this case, especially if they are rural or northern, this will be a hard situation to face in certain circumstances. This is why I think there should be more in this bill to help people in particular situations.
Before I proceed, Mr. Speaker, I would like to mention that I will be splitting my time with the member for .
The bill would Increase maximum fines for offences and it introduces a new fine for repeated offences, which is apropos for the case. If people are doing something because they were unaware that the calibration was wrong and what we see as a price tag is not what just went into the gas tank, which sometimes happens unwittingly, there is a fine involved. However, if it happens again and again and the person is a repeat offender whose intent is to bilk the customers, then the person should be dealt with accordingly.
Bill proposes to increase the accountability of retailers for the accuracy of the measuring devices. Mandatory inspection frequencies, common in the majority of countries, deal primarily with retail petroleum, wholesale petroleum, dairy, retail, food, fishing, logging, grain, field crops and mining. Essentially, these are measurements for industries in general where the measurement of the goods being sold or purchased is very important. There needs to be that standard and, in this case, this international standard.
Other sectors could be included in the future of course as time goes on and I am sure we will have a debate about that in the future.
Measurement Canada will take a more active role in this. One of the roles it will take is the training of people involved in helping to calibrate these machines to ensure they are correct.
I will now talk about some of the clauses that are considered here, one being the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act. The act requires that only approved and verified metres would be involved. The act allows the accreditation of independent metre verifiers to verify the accuracy of electricity and natural gas metres on behalf of Measurement Canada.
We see there is another element being brought in that is really quite something. Now we are branching off into a different direction that, in my particular riding, could be detrimental under certain circumstances. However, the spirit of this is an honest one, which is to ensure the calibration on the pumps is correct, but in this particular case the government could help maintain that perfection in the system by doing more things to help certain retailers.
Bill proposes to give the the power to appoint non-government inspectors. These inspectors would be trained and certified by Measurement Canada, as I mentioned. This is where the bill gets a little bit dicey, a little bit cloudy as to the clarification of what it is that certain retailers must do and what it is they are on the hook for, as the common vernacular goes.
Description and analysis: In addition to ensuring metres are kept in good repair, owners are responsible for paying any fees required by the act, such as those that may be charged for mandatory inspections.
I will touch on that one for a moment because it is one that is of grave concern to me. The owner is responsible for the cost involved in looking at the metres to ensure they are calibrated. Let us say that the owner is someone with a retail outlet in a remote area, perhaps on the south coast of Newfoundland. In certain cases there are places remote enough so that there is no other way to purchase gasoline in a 200 kilometre radius. The owner finds himself in a situation where, if he needs to have someone come in and if it is not someone from the government or someone trained and willing to do it but someone in the private sector, a fee is involved to bring the person to the owner's establishment to ensure his pumps have the right readings.
A lot of small retailers will be on the hook for travel costs, meals costs and mileage costs. The frequency of getting their pumps calibrated will be such that it is an added expense to them. It is not just that. Let us assume, unwittingly, that there is a slight mistake in the calibration and that the gas pump is putting out something that is slighty off what the price on the pump shows. It must be shut down. Even though that is the only pump in a 200 kilometre radius, it must be down for a period of time because, let us face it, if it has to be fixed and it has to be fixed by someone else. Someone else has to come in and do that.
We should think about the people in the area who rely on gasoline to get to work, take their kids to schools or get to the hospital, God willing. These are the situations that I do not think we have looked into with the bill. When the bill was put together, I would hope that there was some consideration and thought put into it, more than what I see on the surface of this particular bill. I certainly believe that the government should have looked at some kind of subsidy for these small retailers to help them in calibrating their pumps.
In the meantime, we have the administrative monetary penalties, which in this case are apt because we have a graduated amount of money. As I said earlier, if owners unwittingly make a mistake in their pump or it is showing a different reading, then obviously they will be fined for it, but if it happens again and again, the intent is such that they want to bilk the public. After all, this is about fairness at the pumps, I suppose.
That said, the graduated fine should be to a point where individual retailers will not have to pay a small fee every time it happens. They must pay more and more as we go along. That is the key element of this.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill , the so-called fairness at the pumps act.
Fairness at the pumps sounds good. It is a nice title. It sounds as though people are trying to do something good.
I have heard different variations on it from the Conservative Party: the getting back at the chisellers act, those who are trying to rip off people when they buy gas.
What this bill amounts to is vast and expensive changes to combat variances which in large part can be attributed to environmental changes and honest errors.
When we look at what has happened in the past, and the amount of the variance or error, studies show that 96% of gas pumps are precisely accurate. Ninety-six per cent is not perfect. However, let us look at the difference. Four per cent are inaccurate. Of that 4%, 2% favour the consumer and 2% favour the owner. It is not as if there is this big massive problem, but it would be nice to try to get 100%.
The petroleum industry is second only to the apiary industry in terms of measurement accuracy. The apiary industry is slightly better than the petroleum industry.
What is more, according to Alan Johnson, president of Measurement Canada, the majority of pumps that were out of tolerance were out by slightly over one tolerance. One tolerance is the equivalent of .5% discrepancy between the amount of gasoline paid for and the amount dispensed. This means that the majority of pumps out of tolerance were about 1% off measurement. That is of that 4%. We can see how minuscule that amount is.
I am not justifying this and I am not saying it is okay to have variance, but what we have to look at is the amount of energy that has gone into this and how this actually comes out.
The Conservatives talk about it as if there were a whole industry out there trying to rip off consumers. They vilified a group. What I am seeing is a repeat of what we had in Ontario in 1995 when the Conservatives were in government in Ontario. Their modus operandi was to create a crisis and vilify one group, one industry. In this case it is not so much the oil industry or the petroleum industry, but they are vilifying the person at the pumps, the small operator.
We have seen this in Ontario. We saw it in Walkerton where they left it up to the individuals to monitor themselves and to hire their own private inspectors, not government inspectors, but private inspectors who would make a living off it going to different areas.
When private inspectors go in when needed or on a regular basis, what we are seeing is the industry regulating itself. I have a small concern with that; actually, it is a large concern because of what we did see in Ontario.
Currently on a report, a fraud is investigated by a government inspector. This will not change under the new system. The only change is that every two years station owners must pay $200 per pump for a mandatory inspection with no evidence of tampering or intentional discrepancy. That is $200 every two years. It does not sound like much, but when one has a number of pumps it causes a problem for the small operators.
As was mentioned earlier, I look at northern Ontario. Northern Ontario is a large territory with a sparse population and there are small operators. They are not making millions of dollars. They are not making huge amounts of money pumping gas. They are providing a service.
When we look at northern Ontario and rural Canada in general, there is not a lot of operators. I have seen it happen where people have to drive an hour to get gas, believe it or not. They have to get to that gas station. If that operator is not doing the volume, he still has to get the inspection.
When we look at what causes pumps to go out, cold temperatures cause a bit of variation, but the major factor is the amount of pumping that gets done.
When we look at a major centre such as Toronto, some stations pump gas like it is going out of style and there is some wear. Perhaps the Conservatives would like to look at something like that and say that maybe they should be inspected more often, but it is two years right across the board.
In rural areas in northern Ontario there is not that volume and not the wear and tear. When we look at operators in northern Ontario or in rural Canada, they still have to be inspected every two years. Inspectors are paid $200 per pump. Northern Ontario is a vast area, as is rural Canada. How many inspectors will be going to the rural areas? They are going to go where the fruit is lying low, which is in the major centres. The inspectors will be in the larger centres like Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa. In the smaller centres, the operators will be at the mercy of the inspectors. They will be sitting there waiting and wondering when it is going to happen. This is going to cause some problems for the operators.
When we look at operators in rural areas such as northern Ontario, we see that there are independents. Many of the independents have been wiped out, but a lot of the operators are small operators. This adds to their costs. They will have to pass these costs on to the consumer. This is actually adding costs to the operators or the people of northern Ontario and rural Canada.
If this were a problem solver, if it would put an end to all fraud at the pumps, then I would say that this is something we should embrace and let it go ahead, but this bill will not stop those major fraudsters who are overcharging consumers. It will only penalize pump owners, especially in rural regions where equipment is most likely to break down in inclement weather, whose equipment is off by less than 1%. That is not a large amount, yet independents, small owners, are going to be hit hard. In turn we are going to see more and more people asking why they would put themselves up.
It is almost as though they are accused of being guilty until proven innocent in something like this. In the way it is written, it has come to light that all small companies that pump gas are fraudulent, that they are all trying to chisel and steal money from people. That is not so. The people who pump gas are honest and are trying to earn a living.
There might be a little variation but there is variation in all businesses and all industries. When we look at it, about 0.0002% of the gasoline bought by Canadians last year did not end up in their cars. That is two ten-thousandths of one per cent. Anybody who looks at that sees it as a small amount. It is not a large amount. I am not saying it is insignificant, but it is something that should be considered because two ten-thousandths of one per cent is not a huge amount, not when we see the variation in the price of gasoline. It swings up and down. In my community the other day it went from 96¢ to $1.08. Had they been measuring better, it would not have made a bit of difference.
When I look at what the Conservatives have talked about in the past, such as taking the GST off once it got over 85¢ and all kinds of neat things that sounded good but were not acted upon, this is a pittance. It is playing Canadians for fools. It makes people feel good when they read the title of the bill, but unfortunately, that is where it ends.
Mr. Speaker, it is my turn so speak to Bill .
Bill is not bad in itself because it is very important for pump measurements to be accurate. I have noted, though, the criticisms voiced by my colleagues. They said that consumers should not have to bear the cost of the new monitoring requirements under Bill . We will have to be careful in committee to fully clarify this issue.
The Bloc Québécois is in favour of sending the bill to committee. However, the bill does nothing to address the real concern of people, which is that they pay too much for gasoline. Two things need to be done: we have to create an agency to monitor gasoline prices and to give the Competition Act more bite.
The Bloc Québécois has introduced some bills in this regard that I will discuss in a few moments. That is what we need to talk about. I hope the government is not going to pat itself on the back, claiming that it introduced a bill to regulate the fluctuations in the price of gasoline and it will ensure that people pay a fair price through tighter monitoring of the measurement devices at the pump. The accuracy of these measurements is a very interesting point.
We do not even know if consumers benefit or are penalized when pumps are not working quite right. I suppose that if people are tampering with the pumps, it is not to do consumers any favours. It remains to be seen, though, whether people have fiddled with the gauge showing the number of litres pumped. That is not the solution, and I will show why in the next few minutes.
Bill C-14 amends certain provisions of the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act in order to better protect consumers against inaccurate gasoline pump measurements. That is basically what we are talking about. Many people are concerned about this. The bill covers other measurement devices as well and not just gasoline pumps.
The bill imposes penalties for contraventions to the laws in question, increases maximum fines for offences, and introduces a new fine for repeat offenders. It also introduced mandatory frequencies for measuring devices and proposes the appointment of non-government inspectors, to be trained and certified by Measurement Canada to conduct mandatory measuring device inspections.
The Bloc Québécois is in favour of Bill in principle and of sending it to committee.
However, Bill does not directly address the issue of collusion that has recently come to light in Quebec. Nor does it effectively prevent sudden increases in gas prices. I spoke about two objectives earlier: creating an agency to monitor gasoline prices and giving the Competition Act more teeth.
I want to talk about what happened in my own municipality. Many vehicles are stolen and many people are in possession of stolen vehicles in central Quebec. I do not want people to think that my region is particularly problematic, but in Victoriaville we also had the infamous gas price cartel. Luckily, the scheme was uncovered and people are being held accountable. I hope that if this happens elsewhere in Canada, we will be able to stop them.
However, under current legislation, criticism or complaints must be filed in order for the Competition Bureau to act. That is the difference. The Competition Bureau needs to have quasi-police authority to act when it feels the need and as soon as there are suspicions, not only when there is a complaint. I will come back to that.
We also believe that we still need to make an effort to efficiently respond to rising gas prices, and we can do so with our bill, Bill , which the NDP member mentioned during questions and comments. That bill was introduced by my colleague from . The Competition Act does not allow the Competition Bureau to conduct inquiries on its own initiative. It must always wait for a private complaint before it can start an inquiry. We are also calling for a petroleum agency to closely monitor gasoline prices and to respond to any attempts at collusion or unjustified price hikes.
If the government had taken a serious approach to really helping consumers, it would have focused on those two points. Every time the price of gasoline rises suddenly, people begin to wonder about the oil industry, and rightfully so. These increases are unjustified, and consumers must not be the victims of dubious business practices on the part of oil companies. I repeat, the existing Competition Act has significant gaps. For instance, it does not allow the Competition Bureau to undertake a real investigation of an industrial sector. How can it gather information if it can neither force the disclosure of documents nor protect witnesses? This aspect must be corrected.
Bill introduced by the Bloc Québécois would toughen up the Competition Act to give the federal trade tribunal the right to initiate an investigation, rather than waiting for complaints or accusations, the right to protect witnesses and the right to conduct searches and seize documents. A petition to that effect has been circulating. It is a very popular petition, particularly in my region, understandably, since it was seriously affected by this cartel. To ensure that everyone clearly understands the importance of this issue, I would like to read the petition.
|| 1. Individuals and companies pled guilty in the summer of 2008 to conspiring to fix the price of gasoline;
|| 2. According to Le Soleil, retailers could be overcharging by more than $100 million a year;
|| 3. The current Competition Act has significant gaps, preventing the Competition Bureau from conducting investigations until complaints are lodged.
|| THEREFORE, your petitioners call upon the House of Commons to pass Bill C-452, An Act to amend the Competition Act (inquiry into industry sector), authorizing the Commissioner of Competition to conduct an inquiry of her own accord into the fluctuating price of gasoline.
I can say that this petition is very popular. People are requesting it. They get it online and sign it. People want something to be done about what happened. The Competition Bureau did manage to take action in my region. It is so difficult to do anything about this that this was only the second time the Competition Bureau was able to take action in this type of incident. The first time was in Vancouver in 1995. The second time was in 2008 because there was a complaint. We should not have to wait for a complaint before something can be done. Nonetheless, it worked out and that is how it should be, with increased powers and investigations before things get to the complaint stage.
The Competition Bureau discovered a gasoline cartel in Quebec. By cartel we mean an agreement between companies not to compete with one another. It is a rather simple definition. I will read from a Competition Bureau document, a press release that was issued on June 12, 2008:
||...the Competition Bureau became aware of allegations of price-fixing at gas stations in Victoriaville, Quebec. The evidence gathered during the Victoriaville investigation led to further probes in other local markets in Quebec, namely Thetford Mines, Sherbrooke and Magog.
|| In conducting its investigation, the Bureau uncovered evidence of agreements between competitors to fix the price at the pump at which gasoline was sold to consumers. The evidence indicated that participants in the targeted markets carried out the conspiracy mainly by phoning each other to agree on the price of gasoline and about the timing of price increases, contrary to section 45 of the Competition Act.
|| A number of investigative tools were used, including wiretaps, searches and the Competition Bureau’s Immunity Program.
Some could dispute my argument since I was saying earlier that the Competition Bureau did not have enough room to manoeuvre. Some might say there was collusion, and that a cartel formed in Victoriaville, Thetford Mines, Sherbrooke, and Magog and perhaps elsewhere, but there have been no reports of this in other places.
The competition bureau was able to take action. Lawsuits were filed and some people have already pleaded guilty. So, it works. However, as I keep saying, it took a complaint. At one point, a gasoline retailer from the Victoriaville area received threats, seemingly from other retailers, because he did not want to go along with their scheme. He would keep his prices a little lower than those of the others for a while. His company supported him for a while. However, he eventually found himself all alone and he decided to expose this situation. If I am not mistaken, he talked to a local weekly newspaper. He expressed his frustration to a journalist regarding these events, the threats he had received and the fact that, as a merchant, he wanted to continue to be able to compete with the others.
That is what is wrong with the petroleum industry. If someone wants to buy a pair of shoes, he can go to two or three different stores. Chances are the price of a pair of shoes of the same brand and colour will not be the same everywhere. There may be a $5 or $10 difference. The person may even find a pair on sale, at 50% off the regular price if he is lucky. However, when it comes to gasoline, even if we look everywhere, we will rarely find much variation in prices. In the case that took place in my community, the competition bureau showed that retailers would phone each other and set prices. So, obviously, prices were the same everywhere.
That individual decided that enough was enough, and he spoke out about it. It is only when the competition bureau saw what was going on that it could take action. It reasoned that since a complaint had been filed, it could take action. Otherwise, it could not have done anything. That is why the procedure at the competition bureau must change.
As I said, a number of charges were laid. In Victoriaville, 11 companies were involved in the scheme. In Thetford Mines there were 6. In Sherbrooke there were 20, and in Magog there were 5.
As I mentioned earlier, several companies in Victoriaville, Thetford Mines and Sherbrooke pleaded guilty. The fines are rather stiff, that is $179,000 in one case, $1,850,000 for an oil company, and $600,000 and $90,000 respectively for two other companies. That is more than a slap on the wrist. The $1,850,000 fine was imposed on an oil company, not on a retailer. There is no doubt that these penalties will have a sobering effect.
Obviously, I travel a lot, like all of my colleagues here. We all travel within our ridings. When we are responsible for files, we deal with them away from here, which allows us to compare gas prices. It is interesting to note that at one time in Victoriaville, gas was always slightly more expensive than in Trois-Rivières or Drummondville. Sometimes it was less expensive than in Quebec City, but it was not the cheapest in the province, far from it. Since the Competition Bureau started its inquiry and the results came out, it is funny, but the prices are often lower. People had to be caught red-handed for others to be far more careful in terms of fixing prices. We are still the ones who are benefiting today. Luckily, the Competition Bureau's inquiry allowed us to find out what was going on.
As for the individuals linked to this collusion, this cartel, there were fines of $50,000, $10,000 and $5,000. For once, we caught the people and were able to make them pay. I have here a series of fines for $10,000, $20,000 and $25,000, depending on the person's involvement in the scheme.
As for how this all played out, an article in La Tribune says that the gas cartel may have cost each car owner up to $180. This whole story came to light in 2008, but prices were fixed between 2002 and 2006. The newspaper article says:
|| A very rough estimate [because it is difficult to know how much gas each person bought over the years] is that each year a car owner in Sherbrooke, Magog, Thetford Mines and Victoriaville paid an extra $20 to $40 to fill up their vehicle because of the cartel, which distorted gas prices for approximately four and a half years.
It is interesting to note that a class action lawsuit against the gas cartel is now before the civil division of the Quebec Superior Court, which will attempt to determine how much money should be given back to people who were swindled for four and a half years.
To date, over 12,000 people—and that number is a few months old—have signed on to the class action lawsuit authorized by Quebec Superior Court Justice Dominique Bélanger on November 30, 2010, concerning gas price fixing between January 1, 2002, and June 30, 2006, in the aforementioned cities.
According to another interesting article, this time in Le Soleil:
|| Plaintiffs are seeking $7.5 million plus interest as of January 1, 2002. In addition, they are seeking $500 for trouble and inconvenience for each participant in the lawsuit, as well as $1,000 in punitive damages. The Automobile Protection Association is also seeking $250,000.
That should give a sense of the amounts of money sought by this class action. It is important to note that Bill does not address these concerns at all. Conservative members should not be saying that this bill will solve all gas price fixing problems. The bill might make retailers more accountable by imposing regular mandatory inspections of measuring devices, such as gas pumps, but it will not prevent the price of gas from going up right before a long weekend for who knows what reason.
I have said this a number of times in the House and I will say it again: every time I see gas prices jump and watch television reports about it, I am always curious about what could possibly have caused gas prices to jump by 5¢, 10¢ or 12¢ per litre.
When a representative of the association of oil companies explains on television that there is a problem in Iraq or an oil rig leak, it is always rather difficult to believe him. In many cases, the facts show that the price of a barrel of oil, given that we have reserves, was a certain amount when the problem occurred. As this amount has still not gone up, the price hike should come later, but that is not what happens. As soon as a problem is announced—and we never know if it is real—the price at the pump goes up right away and never goes down as quickly as it should. Thus, we have reason to wonder.
Getting back to Bill , the fines that the courts could impose pursuant to the Weights and Measures Act would increase from $1,000 to $10,000 for minor offences, and from $5,000 to $25,000 for major offences. In the case of subsequent offences, a new maximum fine of $50,000 and/or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years could be imposed. I would be surprised to see that happen.
There are some measures like this in Bill but, I repeat, that is not what consumers asked for initially.
The member for even said that the Liberal Party, in 2005, had introduced Bill . There again, the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, which called for the creation of a gasoline price monitoring agency and more teeth for the Competition Act, were ignored. These two objectives were not achieved by the previous Liberal government, nor by the Conservative government. It is our responsibility to tackle this issue immediately.
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to Bill today.
I wanted to start out by making some comments about the Bloc's initiative in Bill , because I really feel that that is a game-changer. That is an actual solid response to a long-term problem.
The bill is a very short bill, but it basically amends the Competition Act to authorize the commissioner to inquire into an entire industry sector. As the previous Bloc speaker has pointed out, in order to launch an investigation under the Competition Act, a complaint has to be made, and that is essentially the problem that has occurred over the years. We really need the Competition Bureau to be able to act very independently and be very proactive when it sees price-fixing going on in the gas industry.
I have been dealing with this issue now since probably 1988, when we went from government to opposition in Manitoba, and my job was to ask a lot of questions every day about gas prices. We looked at a whole range of ways to deal with the issue. As a matter of fact, the Conservative minister in Manitoba at the time, Jim Ernst, who was very frustrated too, I might say, was determined to follow this issue through as far as he could. He was aware that there were already 125 studies on this very topic sitting on the shelves gathering dust. Nevertheless he went and commissioned another one, so we are up to 126 now probably, and at the end of the day that study came up with the same conclusions that all the others did, that yes, in fact there was price-fixing going on but the Competition Act would have to be changed in order to get a conviction. So we found that that was not going to be the route to go.
Once again, he was the minister and I was the opposition critic, so we were not exactly working together on the subject because I was asking him questions every day as to what he was doing about the matter.
That was the issue of the study. Then we looked at the regulatory options, and we were aware that in the Maritimes there were regulatory boards available, regulating gas prices, but we watched them closely over the years and found out that they were not the answer either, because in fact they tended to regulate simply to the highest price.
I think the public would be very supportive of a monitoring agency or a regulatory agency if in fact they were going to see a regulatory agency with teeth, one that was going to be able to reduce the prices and not just approve the increases. What we will find, if we look at the Maritime regulatory boards, is that they regulate up to the higher price, and that has always been my objection to that approach.
At the end of the day of course, the gasoline prices are pretty much dependent upon world pricing, world events and availability of supplies. When there are examples of refineries impacted by severe storms and hurricanes in the southern United States, such as Louisiana, when refineries are shut down because of weather, storms, explosions or work stoppages, there comes a shortage of product and that creates problems.
We have seen a huge reduction in the number of refineries over the years. In Manitoba, as recently as 20 years ago, I believe we had 2 refineries in the province, and today we have none.
So during this period of the early 1990s, when we were looking at the whole area of studying the issue and changes to the Competition Act and we were looking at regulating gas prices, we were also observing some other developments that were happening within the market. One was to look at possibly bringing gasoline through the port of Churchill because, as members know, we have a port in Manitoba that is very underutilized. However, we have some tanker farms up there where there are a number of tanks, which hold gasoline products that are actually shipped further north. And so, we were looking into the possibility of actually shipping them down to the south by rail.
We also had a number of independent operators who were taking advantage of a very low American price at the time. There was at least one in particular, but I think there were two or three. What this operator would do was drive down to Fargo or Grand Forks, North Dakota, load up from the pipeline there, truck the gasoline up into Winnipeg and sell it at perhaps 10¢ or 20¢ less per litre. It was a substantial amount. The point was that when we turned on the evening television news on a day-by-day basis, we would see cars lined up for blocks to buy gasoline from this gas station, which was being supplied by tankers that were bringing the gas up from the States. But of course this fellow could only operate to the extent of his ability to fill up his tanker truck and bring it back up. He could not get beyond supplying the gasoline for one or two gas stations.
We did look at perhaps expanding on that a bit and trying bring in more tankers of gasoline into some other stations, and we did encounter a lot of different problems in that the transfer of gasoline is certainly not done the way it used to be done years ago. Some of the members opposite who were on farms in the 1950s would know that gasoline was transferred from a little truck that drove to the farm. It would be transferred by a hose into a big tank and then transferred from there into the farm equipment, the tractors and so on. However, things have changed and we cannot drive into town or into a big city anymore with a big tanker truck and start selling gasoline out of the tanker. We did discover that was a fact.
So, we did look at all sorts of areas to try to act on behalf of consumers at that time, and it is easy to do when the prices skyrocket very quickly.
I want to take a minute to talk about the member for because he is a long-time Liberal member in this House. We have had Liberal members today talk about this issue as if it were something that they had newly discovered and other members who think it is a big Conservative problem, that this problem only surfaced since the current and the current Conservative government came to office and now this is all their problem.
The fact of the matter is that all through those periods of time that I spoke about earlier, the Liberals were in power, from 1993 on, and every attempt that was made to do something about high gasoline prices was thwarted. As a matter of fact, with regard to the member for , his own Liberal caucus thwarted his efforts on many occasions, I believe. I used to hear him many times over the years, on the radio, being a champion of the consumer and trying to do things with regard to the Competition Bureau and trying to deal with competition and the price-fixing issues in this country, and he was getting nowhere with his own caucus, with his own government and with his own prime minister.
This has been a longstanding problem. Price-fixing is not something that is just peculiar to the gasoline industry. Since the mid-1980s to the present, we have seen at least two major initiatives on the part of the federal government against price-fixing in the real estate industry. The latest one is being resolved as we speak. Within a number of weeks, the real estate boards across Canada will be getting together to ratify a deal that was made to prevent price-fixing. If that deal is not ratified then, of course, they will proceed through court action.
There are anti-competitive activities that have been around in our society for many years and they have been allowed to foster over the years. It takes strong initiatives on the part of government and law enforcement to attack this and try to break it up, so that the public is better served by true competition.
It is not only real estate agents that have been dealt with over the years but the travel agency business and the property and casualty insurance business. I believe the Toyota Motor Corporation was challenged when it tried to set a fixed price. I am sure members will recall five or six years ago when Toyota tried to dictate to its dealers that in fact there was a fixed price, there was a no-haggle pricing and they could not cut the price. That was dealt with by the government in a positive way.
This is not exciting stuff for the average member of the public, but it is very crucial to a proper competitive environment in which business has to compete. A series of monopolies governing the country is not the way our system is supposed to be operating. We try a lot of things, like monitoring. People think it is a good idea, but we have proven it does not work. However, there are a lot of other things we could look at here.
I want to talk about some of the elements of this bill that people on our side of the House have found objectionable. I do not think we would have a problem if, in fact, these gas pumps across the country were being inspected by government inspectors.
I mentioned earlier that for many years in the province of Manitoba, and maybe some other provinces too, we had a system of random inspections of cars. If a car was bought today, owned for 10 years, it would probably be called in once or twice for an inspection and repairs would have to be made to keep the car in good shape to keep it on the road. People trusted that system because they knew it was government inspectors who were doing the inspecting.
Around 1995, the Conservative government of the day decided to turn the whole inspection system over to private garages. The economy was probably tight, they were not making enough money and this was a way to give them a bit of a cash cow. When cars needed inspecting, they would have to go to a local garage and it was up to the garage to tell the owners what was wrong with their cars. We have seen many terrible examples of gouging, where people have bought a car, taken it to a garage, and found out they have to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars for repairs before they could put that car on the road. We have seen totally different examples of people who have taken cars in and have found out later from a friend in the business that in fact cars that are really not safe at all are being approved, are being certified as safe and being allowed to be driven on the road, because someone has an in with somebody or has a relative in the garage or dealership.
This system was brought in as a sop to the car industry, and overnight the price of used cars went up. We used to see $50 cars, $100 cars, back in the early 1990s. Then, overnight, because of the safety inspection system, the worst-looking car on the road was a $1,000 vehicle.
After a couple of years, the CBC and other news outlets, based on complaints, started to do investigations of what was happening. They found all sorts of examples of gouging in Manitoba, where people were being taken advantage of. The CBC would take in cars that they had previously had inspected; they knew what was wrong with them. I will not mention the garages, but some of them hon. members would know, because they are nationally known chains. The cars would be taken to five or six different garages, and most of the garages, if not all of them, would find huge problems with the cars, when there was nothing wrong with them. That was a blatant example of gouging. Some of the garages lost their licences because of this. Then, a year or two later, a follow-up was done. They found still more cases of gouging. In fact, the second time around, some of the same garages that were caught the first time were cited once again.
Hon. members should know that we cannot get rid of the system once it is in place. The NDP, under Gary Doer, became the government in 1999. It did not get rid of this system and go back to a centralized government inspection system. In fact, it changed the safety inspection period, from two years to one.
As for keeping cars safe on the road, safety inspections are required only when we sell our car. If we have a car and it is sold three or four times in the first two or three years, it will have safety inspections over and over again. However, if we buy the car and drive it ourselves and keep it, we could drive the car forever and it will never be called in for a safety inspection. Potentially, we may have many unsafe cars on our roads. This is a result of turning a perfectly functioning system over to the private sector.
Let us take a look at what could happen and probably will. Members have already said that, if we are dealing with rural areas, northern areas, then we are talking about the private sector. Who will be doing the inspections of the pumps in Yukon? Who will be doing them in the Northwestern Territories, northern B.C., in rural areas? It is a licence to print money. It is a recipe for abuse to have a system like this.
I also want to deal with some aspects of the weights and measures issue. But this is not the way to go. The public and the retailers would accept it if the government were to do the inspections. The inspections should be done over a period of time, but the government should do them. We should not allow the private sector to do these inspections.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill , which deals with an amendment to the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act.
As my colleague before me, the member for and Bloc Québécois industry critic, said, the Bloc Québécois will support this bill in principle. However, I would like to say that this has been a lot of work for not much result. I will explain why. If the government thinks that with this bill it has done a bold stroke of business, to bring the oil companies into line, that it has come up with the most important thing since sliced bread, it is sadly mistaken. That is why we will agree that it should be considered in committee, subject to our later position over the stages to come.
I listened with interest to the discussions—if I may put it that way, the puck passing—among the NDP members in their speeches and questions and comments. Those discussions were very appropriate, very much on point, and very much in tune. My NDP colleagues have also recognized the private member’s bill introduced by my colleague in the Bloc Québécois. However, everyone will acknowledge that Bill does not allow for a direct response to the problems of collusion such as have recently been brought to light in Quebec, or for effective prevention of sudden gas price increases. The government thinks the solution is inspections of the pumps and penalties imposed by the courts, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 for minor offences and from $5,000 to $25,000 for major offences. We should not be fooled. Those fines are peanuts for oil companies raking in billions of dollars in profits. I certainly do not think the oil companies deliberately alter the way the pumps work, to steal a half-cent more per litre sold from us. I certainly do not think that is done. But we do agree that there should be more in-depth inspections. We are not against motherhood, any more than we are against apple pie. With fall upon us, we all agree that apple pie is a good thing. During apple season, I have the apple growers on Île d'Orléans and Isle-aux-Coudres in my riding, and they are very skilled and efficient.
All kidding aside, this is not the discovery of the century. The Bloc Québécois would have expected the government to take responsibility, pull up its socks and address the root of the problem in the oil industry, namely collusion between companies. We did not expect to be told that the Competition Bureau looked into the situation and it cannot conduct an investigation itself because that requires accusations and well-documented cases. As far as the case brought to light in Lotbinière, Arthabaska and the Eastern Townships is concerned, fortunately someone from the oil sector blew the whistle. That is how we came to find out about this. However, it is just the tip of the iceberg.
The problem is much more serious. I hope no one will be surprised to learn that the Conservatives are doing nothing to rein in the oil companies and to discipline them. Just look at who is financing the Conservative Party. It is mostly the oil companies. Who needs tax benefits to explore and exploit the oil sands in Alberta? The Conservatives need the oil companies to finance them in the next election campaign as they needed them in previous elections.
Increasing the retailers' responsibility by imposing mandatory periodic inspections of the measuring devices is truly very important, without a doubt, but it is also highly ineffective. We were hoping and we continue to hope that the competition commissioner would be given more powers. The Bloc Québécois has introduced Bill as a clear response to gasoline price increases.
Mr. Speaker, I hope you understand. I know that your role as Speaker requires you to be completely neutral. You are listening to what I say. You can do two things at once: speak to your colleague on the left and listen to me. You are clearly talented. I will continue to address you, but I will also address the people watching us at home. Do they realize that in Quebec, increases in the price of gas generally happen on Thursdays, when people get paid? Increases can be seen before a long weekend, when there is a statutory holiday. Before Thanksgiving, prices in Montreal jumped by 10¢ or 12¢ just like that. Nothing happened, and the price per barrel around the world is decreasing. Why did the price in Montreal jump by 10¢, 12¢ and even 15¢?
In the past, the oil companies would tell us that the prices were based on what was going on around the world, on the rising price of a barrel of oil, on the wars in Iraq and the invasion of Kuwait. Any excuse would do. We could understand it if there were instability in the countries that produce oil, or if something specific happened. But in this case, nothing happened. On the contrary, the price per barrel is decreasing, but the price at the pump is going up. That is what makes us say that the oil companies are gouging us.
I will give some more examples for the people at home and for my colleagues in the House who are listening. I do not think there is an equivalent in the other provinces, but in Quebec, the last two weeks of July—sometimes up to the beginning of August—are usually what we call the construction holidays. Hundreds of thousands of construction workers are on vacation at the same time. Generally, construction workers are people who work hard. They get up early, and they are at the mercy of the elements and the weather. They are subject to stress on the construction site, and must meet the deadlines on these construction sites, whether they are residential, commercial or industrial. They must complete the buildings and finish their work on time. In Quebec, construction workers take the last two weeks of July to unwind, and many take that opportunity to travel throughout Quebec.
In Quebec, we are naturally attracted to New England, the coast of Maine and the beaches. Some construction workers take long distance or interprovincial buses, some take the train or plane, but the vast majority generally travel by car. If my colleagues would like proof, they need only travel on Quebec roads during the construction holidays.
It is funny that a few days before July 15, 16 or 17, poof, prices suddenly go up. How can that be? What happens?
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. Michel Guimond: Some NDP members did not like my “poof”. I do not know what else I could have said. Whether by magic or miracle, there is a major hike in gas prices on the eve of the construction holidays. Why?
Here is further proof of collusion. In a number of medium-sized or large cities, it is commonplace to have gas stations on each corner of a traffic circle or other intersection. I see my colleague from behind me. I regularly pass through Trois-Rivières as I travel from my riding, on the Beaupré coast, to Ottawa by car. I often stop to fill up in Trois-Rivières, a magnificent city with very welcoming people. There are often gas stations on every corner of an intersection.
She and I could go there together, stopwatches in hand. When one station increases its price by 3¢, 5¢, 10¢, 12¢ or 15¢ per litre, we could count the number of seconds that elapse before the other three increase their prices. Is that open competition? Why does Shell feel the need to increase its price at the same time as Esso? Why increase the price at the same time as Petro-Canada? Why do the increases happen almost simultaneously within a span of seconds? If we had real competition, one service station would charge $1.038 per litre, another would charge $1.019 per litre, and yet another would have a different price. Then we would have real competition.
Let us take a look at food and clothing. Food is a good example of a sector where we can compare the price of identical products. We will not look at products such as beer or milk, as their prices are regulated. I believe that they do not have the right to sell milk for a very low price. Milk is a bad example. Take, for instance, Oasis orange juice. If we checked with the four largest food chains, it is very likely that the prices would be different. That is true competition because there is not necessarily collusion among the four major grocers in Quebec.
And that is what we are seeing with gas prices, which is why I began my speech by saying that there has been a lot of work for not much of a result. Bill is better than nothing, but the government is not addressing the root of the issue. For one, we hoped that the government would use this bill to propose that the Competition Act allow the Competition Bureau to conduct inquiries on its own initiative, as I mentioned earlier, instead of always having to wait for a private complaint before beginning an inquiry.
In addition, the Bloc Québécois has proposed that a petroleum agency be created to monitor gasoline prices and respond to any attempt at collusion or unjustified price hikes. I gave our reasoning earlier. With this type of agency, we could act as soon as prices increase. Instead, the Conservative government keeps telling us—and it was no different under the Liberals—that there is nothing that can be done because the Competition Bureau found that there was no agreement among oil companies to fix prices; therefore, there is no problem. The Bloc Québécois was hoping that the bill would address the real issue.
On May 5, 2003, Konrad von Finckenstein, then the Commissioner of Competition, now chairman of the CRTC, told the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology that even though there were problems with the law, as Commissioner of Competition, he had no choice but to enforce it. Like us, he recognized that the law had loopholes. What we need is a government with the political will to take action and stop oil companies from doing this.
Mr. von Finckenstein said:
|| ...while the Bureau's mandate includes the very important role of being an investigator and advocate for competition, the current legislation does not provide the Bureau with the authority to conduct an industry study.
That is basically the point I wanted to make. Once again, I would like to congratulate my colleague from , the Bloc Québécois industry critic, for his work on this file and for keeping the people of Quebec and Canada informed about loopholes with respect to the price of gas, loopholes that Bill does nothing to close, unfortunately.
The Bloc Québécois supports the bill in principle and will send it to committee. We will see what happens after that. We should not just be talking about the system of measures at the pump and silly fine increases. Oil companies make multi-billion-dollar profits. This bill would fine them $25,000 instead of $10,000, yet they will have made millions using these tactics. We do not think that this bill goes far enough.