Ontario NDP pledge to end gas pump ‘gouging’ on long weekend, but details vague

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath scrums with reporters after the Throne Speech at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on March 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA – The leader of Ontario’s New Democrats pledged in vague terms on Sunday to tackle long-weekend spikes in gasoline prices, alleging that opportunistic gas companies are gouging hard-pressed motorists at the pumps.

Campaigning in Ottawa ahead of the June 7 provincial election, Andrea Horwath took aim at a trend she said was the result of corporate greed.

“We think that it is an abuse to simply gouge people at the pumps because there’s a long weekend coming,” Horwath said.

Gas prices routinely jump ahead of long weekends, which the industry attributes to market dynamics – increased demand and distance to distributors.

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While Horwath said she wasn’t looking to repeal the laws of supply and demand, she said people who have no choice but to drive shouldn’t be penalized. The idea, she said, would be to fix prices a week ahead of long weekends.

“We won’t allow the industry – on a whim and for the purposes of sucking more profits at an opportune time – to do so at the expense of everyday people who have no other choice but to get into a car and fill up the tank,” Horwath said.

Gas prices have also been on the minds of the other two party leaders. Last Wednesday, the Progressive Conservatives’ Doug Ford stood outside a gas station in Oakville, Ont., to promise a reduction in gas prices by 10 cents per litre if he becomes premier.

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Ontario drivers now pay 14.7 cents per litre in provincial tax and 14.3 cents on diesel. Ford said the Tories would reduce both to nine cents. He also promised to scrap the province’s cap-and-trade system, which has added 4.3 cents a litre to gasoline.

Drivers “are frustrated at being gouged at the gas pumps,” Ford said. “This will stimulate the economy when we put money back into their pocket.”

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Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, meantime, said it’s normal for prices to move up and down, and said Ford’s promise to bring prices down was dubious. Global forces, Wynne said, tend to be the largest factor in gas prices.

“I know he’s saying that he’ll take 10 cents out – we know that most people won’t feel that,” Wynne said. “The reality is that the prices fluctuate – vastly, wildly.”

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Horwath was vague on the details of her scheme, but said she would not look to cap gas prices. She said she recognized that gas prices are set in New York, but other jurisdictions have systems for stabilizing the cost of filling up and an NDP government would look at best practices before moving on the pledge.

The party said the Ontario Energy Board, which currently regulates the price of natural gas and electricity to homes, could take on the task of regulating pump prices.

In a statement responding to the NDP pledge, the Liberals cited results of a study commissioned by the Ontario Energy Board suggesting regulation in places such as Newfoundland had in fact led to higher gas prices.

“Regulation can affect fuel prices by altering the competitive dynamics of a market and its prices in ways that may not necessarily benefit consumers,” the report said.

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“In some provinces, regulations have resulted in prices that were higher – though less volatile – than would likely be experienced in an unregulated setting.”

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In response, Horwath said transparency and predictability would result from her proposals – both important to consumers.

Horwath also said people in a given region should pay similar prices. The idea of going on a drive and running into different prices is frustrating and unnecessary, she said.

“You get to the next destination and, all of a sudden, the gas is say five cents cheaper and you feel like you’ve been ripped off because you’ve just paid five cents more 40 kilometres down the highway,” Horwath said.

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