Speech in the House - Bill S-17

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill S-17, which is a lengthy statute to deal with certain double taxation conventions between Canada and Namibia, Serbia, Poland, Hong Kong, Luxembourg and Switzerland. This is second reading debate. I want to say at the outset that the official opposition supports the bill.

I would like to divide my comments into four parts: first, the process that led us here; second, the issue of time allocation; third, just what double taxations are designed to achieve; and fourth, comments about international tax avoidance and tax evasion and why the bill is such a baby step in that direction.

Bill S-17 is 103 pages long. The bill started in the Senate, and lest anyone say this represents a great illustration of the utility of the other place, the government itself has acknowledged that this is routine legislation, and I note that since 1976, there is a convention that bills of this sort, dealing with tax convention legislation, originate in the Senate. In fact, there have been 30 different pieces of tax convention legislation in front of Parliament since 1976.

The bill is designed to bring into effect certain bilateral income tax conventions with the countries I mentioned. It is not a bill that represents significant, staggering, revolutionary change. On the contrary, I think the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance accurately characterized the bill as a routine housekeeping type of statute. That was confirmed by the member for Pickering—Scarborough East who said in this place on second reading, “I am delighted and pleased to rise...to kick off the debate on a rather technical and routine piece of legislation”, to which I say that is entirely accurate.

Let me set the stage by saying the New Democratic Party supports harmonization and greater clarity for taxation laws and likes to bring into force these kinds of tax treaties, which as I will describe, are based upon a model tax treaty convention that the OECD generated many years ago and renewed quite recently.

The parliamentary secretary, while in the other place, referred to this as somehow a major step forward in the fight against international tax evasion. For reasons I will describe, that is entirely not accurate.

Let me speak to the second point I wanted to raise, which is the issue of time allocation. The government today, in a rather embarrassing stunt, decided that 43 times it would use what is in effect a closure motion, time allocation, to deny the House the opportunity to scrutinize a bill. It is embarrassing for democracy and shameful. When asked to justify it during the debate on time allocation, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance asked why we do not just pass it, since we support it. He said something about how this is a very important bill dealing with tax havens.

The bill is important. It is routine. However, it takes baby steps to deal with the crisis in tax havens and international tax avoidance, a matter I would like to speak about later in my remarks.

I presume the government is anxious to tell its base that the New Democratic Party, the official opposition, is somehow made up of unreasonable people who refuse to co-operate, and that is why it has to allocate time to debate the matter. We support the bill, and I guess I am just too new here to understand why it needs time allocation when we support this measure. He also said that there had been 100 days of debate on this measure. Surely that is not accurate. Surely he means that maybe it has been before the Senate for 100 days. If that is what he means, I wish to say that the official opposition has no members in that place and I hope it never does.

What is this legislation about? Canadians might not be familiar with double taxation conventions of this sort, so let me say a few things about the nature of this important legislation.

There are perhaps 90 tax conventions Canada has entered into since the 1920s. They have been a routine feature of international law since then. What are they for? The taxation treaties are designed to avoid imposing double taxation in both what is called the source country and the country of the taxpayer's residence. This is distinct from what the government is trumpeting as a great success, which is what are called TIEAs, tax information exchange agreements.

The Conservative government just did one in March, to great fanfare, with Panama. That was said to be a great step forward in the fight against tax evasion and international tax havens. I have news for the government. Panama is a notorious tax haven made up of many banks with lots of drug money, and Canada thinks that by entering into a tax information exchange agreement with that country, it is a great step forward.

One has to know what to ask for under these tax information exchange agreements. That is the basis of some of the provisions of the bill before us, which we are debating today. Many speakers before the finance committee said that they were essentially useless.

Yes, there are some good reasons for these tax conventions, such as the need to promote investment in various countries where the non-resident invests or works, and in fairness, to prevent Canadians and others from paying tax on the same income in two different countries. The concept is very simple. The concept is to avoid paying taxes twice and to set certain standards as to how income from those things will be treated. Dividends are treated differently than interest. Royalties are treated differently than capital gains.

The OECD, of which Canada has long been a member, has entered into a tax convention treaty that sets down these types of standards with fairly, by now, routine amounts of tax for different kinds of income. That is precisely what this double taxation treaty has done. That, as I said, is by now commonplace.

A country like Canada enters into these solemn conventions, and it is very hard, and should be very hard, to get out of them. One can enter into a protocol that has to be negotiated if it is to be modified. Indeed, there are a couple of protocols in this bill dealing with changes to the longstanding arrangements with Switzerland and Luxembourg. Frankly, the protocols can be changed, but there is still a solemnity. It takes some time. People intend at the international level to enter these for long periods of time, and they should be, and are, difficult to change.

The treatment of different kinds of income I have already described, and the OECD has made that very clear. The details I can confirm in this statute are entirely consistent with what other tax conventions of this kind have done for these different kinds of income. However, there are many other ways and progressive things going on in the world that the bill has nothing to do with. Let me give an example.

There was a recent agreement between the United Kingdom and Switzerland such that British nationals who have money in a Swiss account are subject to the Swiss government determining if they are British nationals, and if so, remitting to the U.K. tax authorities 30% in taxes of the amount in that Swiss account. It is much like a withholding tax. The British person could agree to self-identify and say, yes, he or she is a British citizen, and pay a lower amount of 5% or 10%. Thus, it is an incentive to self-identify if someone has money in a tax haven. Why does Canada not do something like our allies are doing? Nothing like this exists in this fairly routine statute.

What is the bill not about? The parliamentary secretary has told us that it is about international tax evasion and tax havens. I do not think so. It is not about international tax avoidance.

Next week, the G8 is meeting in Northern Ireland. The leader of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron, has made it one of his three key priorities to address this crisis in tax havens. It is estimated that we are talking about between $10 trillion and $30 trillion in tax havens abroad.

It is estimated that the Canadian treasury is losing perhaps $7.8 billion every year to tax havens. Canadians need to understand that this is not arcane tax law. It is money that could be in our treasury to pay for goods and services for Canadians. Other Canadians are not paying their fair share, therefore requiring us to do more.

People are outraged by these abuses. Fortunately, the press has done a great job in recent months to show the enormity of this problem. The figures are staggering, the cost is enormous and people are demanding action. I salute the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for his leadership. I regret that the Canadian government is very much the caboose on that train.

New Democrats will continue to push the Conservatives to take real action on tax havens. We did a supplemental report to the finance committee's study on tax havens and brought out a dozen or so recommendations for meaningful change, not radical change, which, of course, the government resisted. They were the kinds of changes our allies are bringing forward to address this crisis.

While we support the routine negotiating and updating of tax treaties such as this, we will continue to push harder against Conservative policies that have failed to protect the integrity of our tax system and that are furthering the erosion of our tax base.

Let us talk about the priorities of the government in going after tax havens. As I said, the parliamentary secretary would have us believe that there is real action going on in Canada and that we are really serious about this. That may be so, except for the fact that the statistics speak for themselves.

I quote an order paper question, Q-1174, of February 14 of this year, because there has been a lot of misinformation about whether there are cuts at Canada Revenue Agency. The minister reported that after the budget, which we dealt with today, Bill C-60, 2,568 full-time equivalents will be lost to the Canada Revenue Agency. They trumpet two areas: the international audit program and the aggressive tax planning program of the Canada Revenue Agency. In the last four or five years, the government confirmed, in the order paper question I just mentioned, there have been cuts in those as well.

Therefore, the notion that somehow we are serious about tax cheats, that we are out there with both feet and doing our thing like our allies is demonstrably not so. If they could characterize this as an investment, perhaps they could understand the enormous amount of money that could be made if they got serious, just as our allies have. I will provide examples of that in a moment.

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, wrote in The Guardian on May 27, 2013:

Our multinationals have learned how to exploit globalisation in every sense of the term—including exploiting the tax loopholes that allow them to evade their global social responsibilities.

He talks about transfer payments, whereby, as he says firms "make up" the prices of goods of services that they charge each affiliated entity and so forth to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. We have seen that. We have seen that the Cirque du Soleil uses a subsidiary in Luxembourg, a low-tax jurisdiction, to not pay its fair share of taxes in Canada. The Irving family is notorious for this. Of course, there is Apple, Starbucks and Google, and the list goes on. People are outraged.

Canadian firms are just as involved in the creative use of tax havens to avoid paying their fair share. It is the kind of thing that finally seems to be getting attention, albeit not from the Conservative government.

What can be done? What have the French done? They have published a black list of tax havens with bank-secrecy laws. They are simply saying that their French development agency will not operate in the 17 countries that are on the list. Is there any such list in Canada? I do not think so.

They have signed the multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters and have agreed to share information, on request, from other countries—and here is the punchline—with the optional provision for automatic tax information exchange. What does that mean? Luxembourg, Singapore and Austria, all sensitive, traditional bank-secrecy jurisdictions, are among the 50-some countries that have agreed to automatically exchange tax information to help foreign nations clamp down on tax debtors and allow countries to conduct wide-ranging, multi-party tax investigations.

The Globe and Mail reported yesterday, as did the Financial Post today, that Canada is opposing the automatic tax information exchange agreements. To use my analogy again, if there is a train, we barely make the caboose on that train.

Let me talk about what the OECD Secretary-General, Ángel Gurría of Mexico, has recently said about the kind of things this convention deals with:

The [international tax] rules which we have built since the 1920s were meant to avoid double taxation....The problem is we've moved from double taxation to double non-taxation.

I will continue the quote:

Now we don't tax anybody because we've built a set of codes and regulations and law...and culture...where we facilitate the fact that co-operations, through transfer pricing practises, put their profits in low-tax jurisdictions and therefore do not pay what would be considered to be their fair share.

He also said that taxing IT companies such as Google and Amazon had become especially difficult, as they are apparently based in the “ether”.

You can move anywhere and it doesn't matter where you originate the information or where you register the company, basically the consistency is that they [the companies] want to pay less tax.

This is hurting developing countries a great deal as well, as their wealth is taken to tax havens, and Canada has not been aggressive on that score either.

I said I would talk about what other countries are doing. I have given some examples.

The Swiss government and the Americans have been involved in serious negotiations involving their bank secrecy and enablers that come to that country to get Americans to not pay their fair taxes. In 2009, UBS, the largest Swiss bank, agreed to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement with the United States. The bank eventually turned over 4,450 client names. It paid a $780-million fine after admitting criminal wrongdoing and selling tax evasion services to wealthy Americans.

Do we think Canadians are not part of that? We know that they are. Do we think the Canadian government is putting in the energy to deal with this crisis it should? Of course it is not.

That is why the NDP's supplementary report to the finance committee lists a number of things we think need to be done. The government refuses to measure this problem, as our allies have done. The measurement of the tax gap and the like they scoff at as being irrelevant.

I wish it could finally follow the practice of the French, the Australians and the British in doing the right thing, but it does not seem to want to. It cut services. CRA does not have the warm bodies to do the job that is required, and we are supposed to believe that this is different.

We support the bill. We think it is a bill that is in line with modern tax practice in avoiding double taxation. It makes sense at one level. However, when it is sold as something it is not, we have to stand and tell the government that the emperor has no clothes.

It is a great housekeeping bill. I am glad we have a deal with Serbia. I am glad we have a deal with Namibia. I am glad we have a deal with countries that are our allies. However, why can we not see the need to really get serious about tax evasion?

I note that the government has been given information recently, that it had the information from the international consortium that was doing the tax evasion studies and that it had the opportunity to move forward, and it did not. It said in this House that it will take all measures to do so. It did not.

I am hoping, when our government is in the G8, that it shows a tiny bit of leadership on this issue and gets on board with Mr. Cameron, gets on board with the Americans, gets on board, indeed, with all of the G8 and says, “Canada is here to play as well. We're not simply going to take a back seat or ride in the back of the train, in the caboose, on such an important issue”.