Mr. Peter Julian (Burnaby—New Westminster, NDP):
Madam Speaker, members will recall that when I was speaking yesterday I began by praising the member for Windsor West for his determination to force the government to take measures to stop the rip-off of ordinary Canadian families through both gas price gouging that we have seen across this country and from the whole issue of faulty gas pumps, pumps that do not give us the gas for which we are paying.
Even though the government has known about this issue for two years, and despite election promises to the contrary where it said that it would take action, rather than intervening and doing something, it has finally come forward with this bill. However, it is only because of pressure from the member for Windsor West and the entire NDP caucus pushing the Conservative government to finally take action.
As we know, the Conservatives love their gravy train and the gravy train that they give to financial institutions, the petroleum companies and telecommunications companies which does not seem to have a limit. No matter how much the public is ripped off, the Conservatives seem to feel that is okay. However, it is increasingly not okay with the public, which is why the member for Windsor West and his work is so important in this House.
Bill C-14, which is before us today, is a poor half-measure but we would not even have this poor half-measure before the House if it were not for the work of the member for Windsor West.
What we have seen from the Conservatives since they have come to power is progressively allowing the public to be ripped off and ordinary Canadian families to have their pockets picked without any sort of intervention or any sort of government responsibility being taken. We have the finance minister who, after it became clear that there was a major rip-off by financial institutions of ordinary Canadian families, wrote a letter to those financial institutions. That was the sum total of his work.
We see the same thing when we talk about gas price rip-offs. It has been very clear for years that gas prices were being manipulated. The large and incredibly profitable petroleum companies jack up world prices and automatically the retail price goes up and the retailers, the mom and pop operations, have no choice. I have talked to many of them and they say that they are being told to raise prices immediately. They have to live with that despite the fact that it is local people who are most impacted. The world prices go up on old stock and prices spike up, with windfall profits. Over the course of a weekend, particularly holiday weekends when there is a lot of travelling, those prices are maintained.
The world prices may change and they may go down. The new stock comes in at a lower wholesale price but those high prices are maintained. They are jacked up immediately on old stock, with windfall profits there, and then as new stock comes in at a lower price, the prices are maintained for more windfall profits. The petroleum companies do not want to be too greedy. They know the degree of public tolerance of their practices is really coming to an end. They are testing public tolerance every year, so reluctantly they bring the prices down to something more akin to what actually matches the wholesale price.
We have known this for years and have seen this happen for years. Ordinary Canadian families, whether they live in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, in Atlantic Canada, in central Canada in Ontario or Quebec, have to live with these rip-offs and the government has steadfastly refused to do anything to stand up for ordinary Canadian families at all, not one intervention.
We now come to the issue of the gas pump rip-offs, because this has been known for years as well. A study done by the Ottawa Citizen revealed that between 1999 and 2007, government inspections found that about 5% of pumps delivered less fuel than what was reported on the pump display, which means that 10,000 fuel pumps were overcharging hard-working ordinary Canadian families who are working harder and harder for less and less pay.
We also have seen a fall in real income over the last 20 years. The only people who are doing well in this country are the very wealthy who now take most of the income pie. That is something Conservatives do not like to talk about, but it is a reality just the same.
On the Liberal watch and on the Conservative watch, we have seen a hollowing out of the middle class. Poor Canadians have become much poorer and the wealthy now take most of that pie. They just sit down and gobble up most of the pie. What is left for the vast majority of Canadian families is a smaller and smaller piece of pie. Year after year, the wealthy take a larger and larger chunk, the middle class and poor Canadians a smaller and smaller chunk, and that is why real incomes have descended, even though the average Canadian family and the average Canadian worker is working harder than ever. Overtime has gone up over a third in the same period. We are seeing Canadian families struggling to make ends meet and working harder and harder for less and less pay.
As part of that whole dynamic, we have seen the government's inability to stand up for Canada. On the Conservative watch and the Liberal watch, we have seen the loss of half a million manufacturing jobs. Those were good, family sustaining jobs that were thrown out of the country by bad trade deals and dysfunctional trade policy. As a result, people are taking whatever job they can get, whether it is temporary or part time, which is often the case. The number of burger flippers in the country is expanding monumentally. The Conservatives love to stand up and say that, sure, we have lost half a million manufacturing jobs but we have created 400,000 burger flipper jobs. They somehow think that Canadians should praise them for replacing good, family sustaining jobs for jobs that are part time, temporary and low-paying. Somehow the Conservatives feel that they are economic geniuses in having achieved that end, the hollowing out of the Canadian economy, putting all of the Canadian economic levers into Bay Street, so that if one is a wealthy financial speculator, one is wealthier than ever, and nothing for middle class families.
That is where we come to the issue of the fuel pumps. We have 10,000 fuel pumps pumping less fuel than ordinary, hard-working Canadian families are paying for and the government has done nothing to intervene. It says nothing about this being absolutely outrageous. It does nothing to refund the tax it is getting from the consumers who are paying for less fuel than they receive. It has done nothing to organize an ombudsman department, as the member for Windsor West has called for, so that consumers would have somebody to go to, an ombudsman who would stand up for them. No, the Conservatives do not do that. They do not talk about refunds or any sort of compensation. They allow the rip-offs to go on for years and then finally but reluctantly, faced by enormous pressure from the NDP, they decide to bring in Bill C-14.
What does that do? Does it create the ombudsman office that consumers have been calling for? No. Does it actually allow for a refund or compensation for the years of rip-offs? No. Does it allow for any sort of refund of tax for what the government received from the consumers who were being ripped off? No.
What it does do is it allows for inspection. That is important, except that in most countries there is an impartial government inspection service. The Conservatives decide that what they can see as a profit centre. These mom and pop retailers and other retailers would now have to deal with mandatory inspections, which is a good thing. We would increase the number of government inspectors who would ensure those fuel pumps are accurate, which is also a good thing. However, instead of doing that, the Conservatives said no. They said that they would allow private companies to come in and the mom and pop retailers would have to pay whatever the private companies decide they will pay so that they have these mandatory inspections. It is not as if the mom and pop operations can stop it. They do need to have the inspection, which is not a bad thing if the government provided the service out of our taxes. However, instead of doing that, the retailers would now have to pay whatever the private companies charge.
The member for Elmwood—Transcona spoke to this bill yesterday and what he said was extremely relevant.
This is just another example of how badly this government has attacked and let down rural and northern Canadians. We see it time and time again. We saw it with the softwood lumber sellout. It is as if the Conservatives did not care about the softwood lumber industry and signed the deal because they could spin it any way they wanted. It is as if they do not care how many northern and rural jobs were lost and they really do not care about northern and rural Canada. That is the Conservative message, whether we are talking about the softwood lumber sellout, about this kind of bill, or about a whole range of issues.
As we well know, the worst farmer seats in the country are in Alberta. The provincial Conservative government and the federal Conservative government are bad news for Alberta farmers. The worst farmer seats in the country are in the province of Alberta because Conservatives do not give a damn about rural or northern Canadians. They just do not.
What the Conservatives care about is Bay Street and the petroleum industry's CEOs. They care about a very narrow range of interests. They care about lobbyists. But when it comes to rural and northern Canadians, they do not give a damn. We can see this in Bill C-14, as the member for Elmwood—Transcona said.
Perhaps this idea of privatizing and allowing private companies to enforce mandatory inspections may work in urban Canada where there is some competition. In rural and northern Canada when the private companies, perhaps the petroleum companies, decide that they are going to run the inspection operations they are going to charge whatever they want. The mom and pop operations are just going to have to suck it up because that is the attitude of this Conservative government. It will make sure that the local mom and pop operations in rural and northern Canada are forced to pay whatever the big private companies want to force them to pay. Couple that with everything else that is not in this bill that should have been.
The fact is that the government waited for years and allowed the ripoffs to go on for years before it chose to do anything about it. It took goading and determination from the NDP once again to force the government to do anything. After all of that we see it is not even a half measure in dealing with gas price ripoffs.
The government, in an attempt at irony I imagine, tried to say this is the fairness at the pumps act. Very clearly, it is not fair. It does not deal with gas price gouging. Yes, it deals with mandatory inspections, but in a way that penalizes mom and pop retailers. It does not tell the petroleum companies that they were wrong to allow this practice to continue for so long. The government does not say mea culpa and that it is sorry. Consumers need the government to say it is sorry that it allowed the ripoffs and that it will make it right.
Hon. Dan McTeague (Pickering—Scarborough East, Lib.):
Madam Speaker, for obvious reasons, I am comfortable with this subject. I cannot support a bill that promotes petty treatment of small gas retailers across the country. I thought that the government was trying to help at a time when rising energy prices cannot be explained by supply and demand. This is a real problem that the government does not want to hear about or deal with.
I am very concerned about Bill C-14 for a number of reasons, which I will be permitted to expand on at some length. Hon. colleagues will know that this is an issue that I have spent a considerable amount of time on. I have devoted my time. I thank the people of Pickering—Scarborough East for indulging me over the years, as well as the people of Pickering—Ajax—Uxbridge and the people of Ontario riding, all three ridings over time representing a good chunk of Canadians, or well over half a million Canadians in that period of time.
I am concerned because this bill suggests, lends itself to or gives the impression that it is doing something which is patently false. The government is not going to give the public any reassurance whatsoever that prices they will pay at the pump, or in fact the measurement, are going to be accurate.
I mentioned earlier the concern I had with respect to how the government is portraying this particular issue. To suggest that somehow it is achieving fairness at the pumps, or as the Minister of Industry lamentably, and I would suggest slanderously, suggested that retailers in this country are chiselling people is simply not only incorrect; it is misleading and it is wrong. The minister ought to have apologized.
Given that the minister has not, he has constructed a body of regulation, which in my view and I think in the view of Measurement Canada, in and of itself will do very little if anything except to undermine the integrity of what is left of competition at the retail level in the gasoline industry in Canada.
Just before the Prime Minister provoked an election, breaking his own word, the industry committee had an opportunity to look at one of the major reasons why energy prices were going up in 2008. It had everything to do with a loophole created that allowed a lack of oversight to the commodities industries around the world. We can recall that energy prices in July 2008, as far as oil was concerned, reached $150 a barrel virtually. The price at the pumps went up substantially. There were a number of other causes and effects, including commodity costs for food and other forms of energy.
The industry committee had one day to look at this before the Prime Minister pulled the rug out from under us in order to obtain an election. Rather than looking at the issue that was confronting Canadians and undermining their standard of living and undermining, as it continuously does, their issue of balancing the cost of living, the government instead chose to pick an article that appeared in May 2008 in the Ottawa Citizen and give it some credibility by talking about it without any actual verification of the numbers, to allow wild extrapolations in terms of the number of pumps that are askew.
Rather than dealing with the fact that we have lost a significant number of refineries in this country due to mergers and acquisitions, rather than dealing with the fact that wholesale prices now move up in lockstep in most provinces and most large communities across this country, rather than dealing with the unfairness of temperature compensation, and I will explain that in a moment, the government chose to narrowly go after the odd gas retailer.
All this would be correct if in fact we learned that the government knew full well that 94% of all the pumps it tested over a rigorous years' period proved to be accurate. Of the 6% that were found to be inaccurate, 2% actually gave consumers more product, and while 4% may have been askew, one would really have to make an argument, both in court and in the public domain, to suggest that somehow gas retailers were involved with chiselling the public.
If the hon. members in the government who proposed this bill had taken the time to actually learn how a pump works, they might find, as we see in so many other instances, that there is obviously a duty of care but retailers may not know that a pump is broken, they may not know that the pulser, which is part of the electronic process, may have malfunctioned, they may not know there is a mechanical problem even after they have tested and even after they have calibrated.
Why is that important to know? It is because they may realize there is a problem, through no fault of their own, and they will test that. Why do they want to test that? It is very simple. No reasonable retail gas retailer in this country is going to want to have a gas pump that malfunctions. The reason is that their volumes will be out, and their logistics and inventory report, which they have to make day in and day out to ensure accuracy for their own economic reasons, are there.
The incentive to do something wrong is certainly not there, but more importantly, there has been no jurisprudence here. There has been no case, to my knowledge, where someone has been convicted of deliberately defrauding someone. If that is the case then I want to hear about it because I have not heard a single cogent argument coming from the government to justify this. It is in fact a solution in search of a problem.
We know that it can lend itself and head toward some very unintended consequences, including penalizing and skewing an industry whose representatives, mom and pop gas station retailers and other people, are working day in and day out, 24 hours a day, seven days a week to try to make a living. The government has the audacity of penalize them and call them chisellers and suggest somehow it is going to remedy the situation with a magic wand saying, poof, we now have new effective fairness at the pumps. This is misleading to Canadians. This is telling Canadians that something is going to happen that does not. I am surprised to see in a few media reports that somehow they have bought this line. It is not going to do anything to help Canadians. Let us understand that when we target a particular industry we had better back it up with facts.
The facts we have before us are very simple, and I suggest this to the member for Burnaby—New Westminster. I have measurement compliance rates from 2005 to 2009, which will take in the period of the Ottawa Citizen article and all the other little things the government says it has done, through Measurement Canada by sector. I have about 30 of them here, which includes sectors where there are less than five data points, where there is not a lot of oversight and inspection, but it has a number of areas: hardware stores, retail rubber products, general merchandise, laundries, cleaners, piece goods, precious metals and stones, alcoholic beverages, honey and apiary, non-metallic minerals, quarries and sandpits, waste collection, transportation, metal scrap, fruit and vegetable, fur and skin, retail gasoline, dairy farms, dairy products, textiles, chemical products, food and beverage manufacturing, electricity, livestock, poultry and there are a few others.
In looking at Measurement Canada's own guide of these 30 or so industries, we find that retail gasoline is the second highest most compliant in the country. So we are going after an industry whose reputation is very good by our own analysis and yet we have a government that wants to target them. With a 93.11% compliance rate, it is only slightly behind honey and apiary at 93.33%. That surprises me because if it is not an admission that the government has this terribly wrong and is targeting the wrong industry, why for goodness' sake has it not gone after the quarries and sandpits industry with a 47.42% accuracy rate? Why has it not gone after the electricity industry? The government says that we use gasoline. Well the last time I checked, this place was lit up by electricity. Its compliance rate from Measurement Canada is 74.19%. One-quarter of what we are buying may not be accurate, and industries and consumers use it day in and day out. Our country is driven by this and yet Measurement Canada, through the direction of the government, decided we are going to target the good guys here.
We are going to go after them because we do not want the public to know that currently energy prices are being manipulated through a lack of oversight both in terms of the trading platforms at NYMEX and around the world. We do not want to let people know that there have been a number of strategic withdrawals of refineries in Canada, removing supply and as a result artificially bumping up the price of gasoline. We do not want to talk about a Competition Act, written in 1986 by the oil industry at the invitation of the then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to go and rearrange the Competition Act in such a way that it would be the first time that a western country has allowed its very act of policing the commercial industries to be policed by the very people it is meant to police.
It seems to me that we have missed the point here and the government has done something that is classic smoke and mirrors. This is a distraction. This is to give people the impression that somehow when they are pumping gasoline in fact they are not getting what they pay for.
There are probably in excess of 130,000 pumps in this country. There are about 70 billion litres of gasoline and diesel dispensed. I was able to get this document finally from Measurement Canada after three and a half months of requests. They finally gave it to me with one week's notice to review this in advance of this debate and of course for our presence in committee. I was surprised to learn that the $20 million from Measurement Canada, which the government is trotting out as being the annual average rip-off of Canadians, actually turns out to be $8 million, because it recognizes that $12 million of that could have actually gone in favour of the consumer.
That being the case, we know the government is somewhat challenged when it comes to statistics. We know it has a problem with Statistics Canada as it relates to the census, but that should not be surprising, given how it extrapolates its views with respect to statistics and data that it tends to trot out, which it knows to be wrong, which it knows to be false.
Let us put that into context. The average skew of gasoline in Canada is 0.018. That pales in comparison to what is occurring today, which the government does not want to talk about. I am not sure whether it believes that this is acceptable. We have not heard much from it. I have put forth changes to the Competition Act and suggested that we have a petroleum price monitoring agency, for which the Liberal government advocated and implemented and which the Conservative government killed as its first act upon taking over in Parliament in 2006.
Canadians would have what Americans and others around the world have, a better understanding of the inventory picture in the country, but no, Conservatives do not want Canadians to have that. They want Canadians to believe that 0.018% of the time, there might be a skew and they might not actually get what they pay for, but they say nothing of the fact that in Toronto today, there is a 5.3¢ ripoff. In Vancouver it is 9¢. In Montreal it is 6.3¢. In Ottawa today it is 6.1¢.
This is ludicrous. We are worried about 0.018% on a litre of gasoline, but we do not think that 5.5¢, 7¢, 8¢ or 9¢ is a problem. Do the math, and for the media that happens to be watching this, maybe they could do the same as well because, frankly, this is unacceptable. It is in fact not only false; it is a fraud. I cannot, in all good conscience, support something like this, which is meant to do something that it will not do, that is, to give false expectations to consumers who rightly ask the question, “Why has Ottawa failed us?” I could go into substantial detail of why that is, but let us talk about the bigger picture.
We know this morning that commodity prices on food, particularly corn, have skyrocketed. This may be in response to certain economic conditions around the world. The media seems to be focused on potash, but the bigger question is this. How do prices get manipulated? How is it possible that we have abandoned regulatory oversight of how trading on these markets, the energy markets above all, is avoided? Why do we not understand or care in this country, and why do we hear nothing from the finance minister, or anybody on that bench, about what the Americans and many other parts of the world, particularly Europe, France and Britain, are saying? They are saying that it is time to get control of the derivatives, the swap dealers. These are dealers that were created in light of a loophole created in 2000.
Some colleagues here in the House will remember that the year 2000 was the famous year in which the 262-page report of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act took place that allowed energy traders to establish their own exchanges in which to trade contracts and then of course be exempted on exchanges in their entirety from government regulation. That has led to the direct impoverishment and to the consequences of the 2008 period of time in which energy prices spiked.
We could talk about collusion and conspiracy, which is always a convenient argument that is brought out, but I have to remind colleagues that we have to have competitors who would otherwise have different prices, meeting in the dark of night under little lamps, conspiring to bring prices together. That era of competition at the retail level and, more importantly, at the refinery level, is gone. It is over.
Wholesale prices by city are established usually by a leader. In Canada, nominally that tends to be Imperial Oil, at about 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. every day. That wholesale price is simply followed within a microsecond, and whatever that price is, it is traded publicly. It is available to most Canadians if they want to see it. It is not, as a result, price-fixing but rather a distinct, severe and almost pathetic lack of competition in Canada at the wholesale level.
We had very little discussion recently regarding the affect of declining suppliers on the Canadian market. In eastern Canada the Shell refinery closure in Montreal has meant that a once slack supply situation throughout eastern Canada, particularly the Maritimes, Quebec and part of Ontario, is now affected. How is it affected? Let us look at it this way.
Three months ago, wholesale prices in Montreal and Toronto were on average a penny and a half below Toronto. As of last night, those wholesale numbers have changed rather dramatically. They are now a penny and a half above Toronto. As a result of the closure of the refinery in Montreal, Canadians, not the industry, not its apologists or those who ignore it in the media, pay the freight.
Canadians will have to pay more. Looking at that difference of 2.5¢ a litre in the past three months added to the bill of every ordinary Canadian, who uses 100 litres a week, winds up being $2.50 to the average family multiplied by 52 weeks. Canadians have now been told they can pay another $250.
The fact that we cannot look at this issue more intently means Canadians will continue to suffer. It means Canadians will continue to realize just how irrelevant Parliament, and more important the Conservative government, is with respect to coming up with solutions.
I know of no jurisdiction, particularly the United States or Europe, that would tolerate the exit from the market of a player. It would not tolerate the level of concentration in our country. It would it accept that the Competition Act, written by the very people it is meant to police, would ultimately be chaired by somebody who worked for the industry.
We all recall the issue in 2000 of Superior Propane. I brought a bill before the House to prevent a monopoly to occur in the propane industry, and it passed. Our friends in the other place, many of whom sat on the boards of directors of many of these companies, decided they would not allow the bill to go through. I was surprised to learn that the current Competition Commissioner, with all due respect, was counsel for Superior Propane, which obtained that monopoly. Talk about the fox marching into the chicken coop.
Nothing has amazed me more than this industry because money talks. We have been woeful in our ability to address the real substantive dollar and cents issues that Canadians want us to tackle. I am not against this industry. I want the industry to flourish. I want energy markets to behave in a way that responds to the fundamentals of supply and demand. However, what I have is thin drool and dribble coming from the government by it saying that it will target the very people who have been targeted for years.
The people who have lost in our country are hard-working independent gas retailers. Day in and day out they try to eke out a living with very skinny margins and are often subject to predatory pricing created by a Competition Act that has been decidedly in favour of one thing, and that is intensification of monopolization.
If I have done anything in 17 years as a member of Parliament, it is to try to illustrate the economic injustice that is occurring. I will not lend my name to this bill. I will not support this bill. I encourage members of Parliament to look at the bill, look at the bigger picture, look at the real issues and vote it down.