Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House at second reading stage of Bill S-4. The bill passed third reading in the Senate on Monday. It was sent to us, and it is important that we debate it here in the House.
I understand that the government is rather eager to pass Bill S-4. If it receives royal assent by January 1, the two tax conventions that are listed in the bill, specifically with Israel and Taiwan, will come into effect. The ultimate goal of those conventions, as other members have said in their speeches, is to avoid double taxation. When you pay taxes in one jurisdiction and repatriate money that has already been taxed by another jurisdiction, it goes without saying that Canada does not tax that income a second time.
The bill contains two conventions. The one with Israel is in fact an update, since we have had a convention with Israel since 1975. We are simply updating it today, adding new OECD standards based on its model agreement for the avoidance of double taxation. The bill therefore aims to bring the previous convention with Israel in line with current OECD standards.
The second convention in the bill is completely new. We have never had this type of convention with Taiwan. It is something that did not exist before, which is rather positive.
The bill also includes a technical change to the Canada–Hong Kong Tax Agreement to clarify the situation of the convention with Hong Kong to make it parallel to that of Taiwan. These two territories have special status with respect to China. Since we are adopting a convention with Taiwan, we have to update the terminology used in the description of the convention with Hong Kong to ensure that it is identical to that of Taiwan.
I will not spend too much time on the convention with Hong Kong except to say that we have to be careful in this case because according to one expert who testified on the matter on Monday at the Standing Committee on Finance, the proposed change in the convention with Hong Kong could be interpreted as a reopening of the tax treaty. In a way, we might agree that the current convention with Hong Kong is not in force because of the inaccurate terminology. This could be looked at more closely. I believe that the technical change for ensuring consistency with the Taiwan convention is entirely appropriate.
I will also mention that we will support Bill S-4, introduced in the House today. It comes to us from the Senate because, traditionally, tax conventions come from the Senate. Last year, we saw this a number of times. As hon. members know, there are 92 tax conventions in Canada. Currently, some are being negotiated, while others are in line to be ratified, like the ones we are talking about today.
Traditionally, bills on such conventions originate in the Senate. They are subsequent to negotiations between the jurisdictions. I cannot use the term “country“ in this context, because we are talking about Taiwan. We have to be careful about the words we use. I know that we could make diplomatic mistakes with the status of Taiwan.
We need only think of what happened last week when the U.S. president-elect put his foot in his mouth on this issue. In diplomacy, we must pay attention to the words we use.
To summarize, these conventions are negotiated between two authorities, and that can take some time. In Taiwan's case, among others, negotiations were lengthy. We were discussing it back when the Conservatives were in power. This convention was finally signed in January 2016 by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Ottawa and the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei.
This was done intentionally so that this arrangement would not be negotiated nation to nation, which could be perceived as a diplomatic faux pas. China could have believed that we recognized Taiwan as a separate state. We had to be careful and that is why it was the two offices that negotiated the Canada-Taiwan agreement, by following the instructions of their own governments, of course. These negotiations lasted a long time, and the agreement was finally signed on January 21, 2016, if my memory serves me correctly.
Nearly a year later, the government is now proposing to implement it. The Parliament of Taiwan ratified it fairly quickly in February 2016. It has taken us a little longer. I tried to find out why, but the government has not yet explained why it is only bringing this forward in December 2016. The government is saying that this is practically a national emergency because if the arrangement is not ratified before the end of December, it cannot be implemented until January 1, 2018. The reason is that the text of the arrangement stipulates that the arrangement will take effect on the first day of January in the year following its ratification. That is why the government is saying that it is urgent that the arrangement be ratified so that it can take effect on January 1, 2017.
As the parliamentary secretary mentioned, the convention with Israel has unfortunately not yet been ratified by Israel's parliament. We will see whether it can be ratified before December 31 so that it too can take effect before January 1, 2017.
We are going to support the bill because of these two agreements, but we have serious reservations regarding the tax conventions. I spoke about the risk associated with tax conventions when I asked my colleagues questions. I wanted to comment on it further because, in this case, the disparity between the tax rates of the countries and authorities with whom we are ratifying conventions for the avoidance of double taxation and our own are not necessarily problematic.
Thanks to the research done by the Library of Parliament staff, whom I would like to thank, we were able to find out the specific tax rates of individuals, businesses, and trusts in the two jurisdictions in question, Israel and Taiwan. They are very similar to those in Canada. Tax rates are a bit lower in Taiwan, but Israel has more progressive tax rates, which means that they are a bit higher than ours, so there is not necessarily a problem in this case.
However, tax conventions can be dangerous when they are signed with low or no tax jurisdictions. Indeed, there are countries that require no income tax to be paid whatsoever and that take part in this tax competition that puts downward pressure on tax rates. It is a serious problem for our society, and one that needs to be resolved. We need to pay particular attention to those countries. In this particular case, there is no problem.
However, as I was saying earlier, we have a tax treaty with Barbados. One of my colleagues in the Bloc Québécois raised this issue a few months ago and moved a motion to have this tax treaty with Barbados reviewed. That treaty is of the same nature as the ones we are studying today and very similar to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development model, a convention adopted in 1980, and similar to the ones we are studying today. There are a few differences, because at the time, the OECD model was a little less detailed, but it is essentially the same model used today.
What might suggest that the tax treaty with Barbados is perhaps being used for the wrong reasons is that, in 2014, Barbados ranked second in terms of Canada's foreign investments abroad, after the United States of course, which is our largest trading partner given its proximity and the fact that our administrations are similar from a legal standpoint for both corporations and individuals. It goes without saying that the U.S. is our most important economic partner.
It is surprising, however, that according to Statistics Canada figures, Barbados ranked second in 2014—and not only in 2014, since Barbados was also near the top of the list in 2015, in third place. It also ranked second in 2013.
There is reason to wonder why the second largest recipient of Canadian foreign investment is Barbados, a tiny Caribbean country that has no major economic activity to speak of. It does raise questions.
Looking at the numbers, one cannot help but wonder what is going on there, what could possibly attract so much Canadian investment in Barbados, and whether an investigation is in order. However, there is no need to dig very deep to find out why Barbados is the number two destination for all of our foreign investments in the world. The main reason is that we have an agreement with Barbados to avoid double taxation.
That allows companies who decide to take advantage of this agreement to send money from their subsidiary in Barbados to Canada and then declare to the Canadian tax authorities that they have already paid their 0.5% tax in Barbados. As a result, they do not pay taxes in Canada because, according to the agreement, when a party pays taxes in another country and brings the money back to Canada, there is no second taxation.
As I said earlier, there is no problem with Taiwan and Israel. In other cases, however, there are huge issues because we allow companies to pay a lot less in taxes than what they would pay if taxation levels were similar to Canada's.
That is why it is with a note of caution that I support Bill S-4 today. I want to highlight the problem and raise a red flag for the government's benefit. The parliamentary secretary did not seem to know what the problem was when it was raised by my colleague—he did not seem to know what the problem was or want to consider it. Unfortunately, the Liberals voted against a motion to review the Canada-Barbados tax treaty. I would like to remind my honourable colleagues of that, and I call upon the government to at the very least commit to reviewing the 92 conventions we have with other governments around the world, because problems could arise.
If today we say yes to a treaty with Taiwan to avoid double taxation and if, a few years later, Taiwan decides to modify its regulations to become a competitor in the race to the lowest tax rates, then maybe our conventions would need to be reviewed.
That is the crux of the message I wanted to send the government today. It should start taking a close look at the tax situation in every country with which we have a convention because there could come a time when such conventions are used to subvert the very ideals underpinning them.
The title of the bill mentions preventing tax evasion. We have to ensure that these conventions stand the test of time as tools to prevent tax evasion, not to facilitate it. In some cases, they facilitate tax evasion.
I hope there will be at least one mechanism that enables the government to examine and monitor the tax situation in the jurisdictions with which we have tax conventions. It would be very disappointing if the government did not commit to monitoring the situation in those jurisdictions because such neglect could lead to serious problems. We know that tax evasion is an extremely serious problem, and it is definitely one of my priorities as the national revenue critic.
This is a problem for every country in the world and every person on the planet seeking better government services. The government's role is to provide services to citizens, but when companies and individuals have more and more ways to avoid paying their fair share, our societies pay the price. The honest ones who pay their fair share end up having to pay more every year. They have to contribute more because some taxpayers decide to play by different rules and avail themselves of the services of unscrupulous tax experts who have no ethical qualms about trying to make their clients pay as little tax as possible. Sometimes they use questionable schemes that the Canada Revenue Agency disputes, thankfully. More often than not, it turns out that these schemes are perfectly legal.
These conventions to avoid double taxation are one of the components of the Income Tax Act that make tax evasion legal. There are many other ways to review our policies and legislative measures to fight tax evasion. The government should make this bill and this file a priority instead of talking only about investments. We are told repeatedly that $444 million has been invested in fighting tax evasion.
If tax evasion continues to be completely legal in some cases, tax experts will be able to defend their cases before the courts by saying that they obeyed the law and that there is no problem. The Canada Revenue Agency will challenge this by holding that they did not obey the spirit of the law. The tax experts will win and manage to find new ways every time to get around our tax measures and ensure that their clients do not pay their fair share in society. That is unacceptable.
It is the issue of the day, and I would like to see the government take it more seriously, not only by investing money to find the guilty parties, but also by making the necessary effort to make tax evasion as difficult as possible for the dishonest people who engage in it.
There is something relatively positive in these conventions that is not necessarily something we want to see, and that is a tax information exchange. For example, in this convention with Taiwan, it is good that a section of this agreement talks about a tax information exchange, but the best solution would have been a tax information exchange agreement that was separate from the convention on double taxation. This is a much more robust mechanism for exchanging information, even though any such exchange is on request, which is a major drawback. In fact, the government has to have its suspicions before it can request information from the jurisdiction with which it has an agreement. It is not an automatic exchange. I know we are heading toward an automatic information exchange, but that is not in the bill and it is something we would like to see in the future.
We would like to see more investments, legislative measures, and information exchanges that are truly effective and allow for information to be obtained in real time. We would like to see a shift from on request to an automatic exchange.
I would be pleased to answer my colleagues' questions.