Mr. Speaker, we are finally at the stage where we start examining bills. After one hundred days in office-I read this week that it was a hundred days since the election-this is the first bill before Parliament, Bill C-2, an act to amend the Department of National Revenue Act and to amend certain other acts in consequence thereof. The purpose of this bill is simply to change certain terms in order to reflect a situation that has already existed for over a year.
As far as the principle is concerned, and the minister referred to it in his speech, we certainly agree with the objective of streamlining operations, and not just because it is in their red book but because everyone wants us to do this. Everyone expects this to happen, and it is a social principle our voters want to see implemented.
However, we will have to conduct a more specific and thorough analysis, and we will have an opportunity to do so in committee. There seems to be no problem about the principle. However, there are fears which may be justified in some respects, and I would like to point these out to the minister. I know that some have already been communicated to the minister, and I would like to refresh his memory.
Before proceeding with this general analysis, there is one point I would like to make. As I said at the beginning of my speech, this government has been in office for over 100 days. People often expect a new Parliament to start off with tough measures, to make the kind of improvements we need in a society that in some respects, and I am thinking of the economy in particular, is headed for disaster unless something is done.
I think it is symbolic that, as our first bill, we should have something which in many respects seems rather minor and somewhat disappointing. Of course we will have to wait for the budget. After the election they told us to wait for the opening of the session, and at the opening of the session they told us to wait for the budget, and now I am afraid that when the budget is brought down, they will tell us to wait for the next budget because they ran out of time. We expected some tax measures that would be an incentive for people to become honest citizens and show a little more understanding for the system, and that would give them a little more confidence in a fairer system.
In fact, there are few references in the red book to the tax system. Last night I was reading this book again to try to find something interesting. I was disappointed. I scanned the book carefully for a reference to tax revenues, and I could not find a
single one. I saw the nice tables we see in all government publications, but not much in the way of analysis and recommendations.
So I wondered, since there is not much in the red book about tax equity, if we would get anywhere at all in this respect during this Parliament, since the government keeps referring to the principles in the red book. Maybe they should consider publishing a new and revised version. This is just a suggestion. I remember at school we had first and second editions, so I suggest they do a second edition of the red book that would mention tax equity.
The Minister of National Revenue was expected to bring in some tough measures. I remember raising the question with the Minister of Finance, who said that the Minister of National Revenue would, at the appropriate time, make an announcement on cigarette smuggling, through the excise Tax Act and the customs Act. He is very involved in this particular area as well, but we are still waiting. Meanwhile, what is happening in Quebec, Ontario and the maritimes? And some day British Columbia as well. There is already a little of this going on, but not to the same extent.
Meanwhile, we are not getting much in the way of announcements. When I go back to my riding on the weekend, I will tell my constituents that we worked on Bill C-2, which provides for abolishing a deputy minister's position which, for all practical purposes, has already been abolished. I think people will be pleased to see some jobs being cut here, but they will also be very disappointed.
On the revenue side, there is a lot of dissatisfaction among the public which feels there is no fairness in our tax system. A lot of this disenchantment with politicians and with all members in this Parliament, arises from a sense of injustice.
I expected the government to work a little harder on this. There is still time. Parliament will continue to sit, and I hope that eventually, the government will have some proposals for us.
Consider the principle of this bill. Let us not get involved in detailed analyses but look at the principle. The principle is, that now there will be only one deputy minister for Taxation and customs and excise, where previously there were two. This principle was put into a piece of legislation. This seems proper and reasonable, and I agree with the minister that streamlining is necessary and that informatics and data processing systems can be consolidated. However, perhaps there are a few questions we should ask. There is some apprehension in this respect, and there have been a number of changes back and forth. In recent years, there were repeated proposals to switch Customs to another department. It seems as though that the government cannot decide where it should belong.
The main role of customs posts is to control our borders. These people have a security role. They must watch everything that crosses our borders, whether persons or merchandise. I heard the minister refer earlier to drugs. There is a lot of talk about cigarette smuggling lately, but people tend to overlook the smuggling of illegal drugs which is big business and generates tremendous problems because of the enormous amounts crossing our borders.
That is the approach at customs. For historical reasons and reasons based on economic principles, over the years countries have imposed various customs tariffs to protect their economies, because they thought that was the answer and was also a way to make businesses more prosperous.
Now, the trend is toward free trade and lower customs tariffs. The customs sector is being asked to fulfil a dual role, namely providing security and collecting tariffs.
This role is likely to diminish considerably in the coming years, as free trade takes on greater importance. Soon, we will be considering phasing in amendments to customs tariffs in conjunction with NAFTA and the GATT negotiations. We have many reasons to believe that in the long term, the role of customs will become marginal.
Customs employees are concerned about being attached to a sector where the prime focus is revenue, whereas their primary role is security and control. As long as we have customs tariffs-and I realize that the Department of Revenue must be responsible for this area-I believe that the minister has to address these concerns during the upcoming transition. I know that he met and had some productive discussions with representatives of the customs and excise union. They voiced some concerns which cannot be ignored. They also have some practical concerns about their personal future and I will get back to this in my detailed analysis later on.
We must look at the role of the customs sector in the public service somewhat philosophically. This may not be the best solution, but of course we will learn to live with it. However, some caution must be exercised prior to the consolidation so as not to confuse the role of the two sectors and neglect security by decreasing border controls.
Recently initiatives aimed at increasing border controls were announced in Windsor. While this is very commendable, these initiatives will have to do more than simply appease those who fear for their jobs. They will have to be taken with a eye to controlling what goes on at our borders. Tighter controls and improved procedures are needed.
These are the fears people have, and they appear to be justified.
CEUDA, the union representing sector workers, reports that internal Revenue Canada studies on consolidation recommended as one option that customs remain a separate and distinct sector. However, since no one in this House and very few other people have seen these studies, it is impossible to know whether this option is viable. Perhaps the minister is aware of these studies.
If internal studies were in fact conducted, what conclusions were drawn? Were these genuine conclusions? If not, the minister should make these studies public. Given the difference between the customs function and the tax function, this study should have concluded that it would be best to keep the two separate.
Therefore, many concerns have been voiced and the people involved have received a lot of support. They have received support from the municipalities and the communities concerned, from people who are afraid that the revenue side will take precedence over security matters. Special attention will have to be paid to this aspect of the issue and considerable vigilance will be required in the years to come to ensure that security remains an important consideration.
Let us now look at the bill. There is nothing extraordinary about it as such and it can easily be read in five minutes. It is only two or three pages long, but several sections warrant closer attention. This bill will, of course, be referred to the finance committee and we will certainly have a number of questions to ask then. However, I would just like to draw the minister's attention at this time to a few simple matters. For instance, it is mentioned in the bill that the deputy minister holds office during pleasure. One can ask why this should be the case? Was this not the case in the past? This is only a minor detail, but every word is important, apparently, in a legal text.
Further on, there is a provision which concerns me a little and I hope that eventually the minister will clarify his intentions. Under References, the bill calls for section 6 of the Act to be repealed. The section in question which is to be repealed reads as follows and I quote: "The Minister shall cause to be laid before each House of Parliament, not later than the fifth sitting day of the House after January 31 next following the end of each fiscal year, a report showing the operations of the Department for that fiscal year".
This section would disappear. Would the report to Parliament disappear? If so, why? I recall hearing our friend from the Department of Finance during the election campaign and many times since the beginning of the session say that openness was important, that people must understand what is being done with their taxes and that we need simple indicators. These principles are often mentioned here. Perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps the report will be made at some other time in some other way, but I would like it to be required by law.
I am not at all pleased with that clause, but maybe he has a good reason; the minister can explain it to us in due course or in committee when we consider the bill clause by clause, but it worries me. It is far from the principles of the red book, if I understood it correctly, anyway.
But the key clause, which is at the heart of this bill and which is hard to understand-the minister referred to it just now in his speech, says this: "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to affect the status of an employee who, immediately before the coming into force of this Act, occupied a position under the authority of the Deputy Minister of National Revenue for Taxation or the Deputy Minister of National Revenue for customs and excise except that each of those persons shall, on the coming into force of this Act, occupy their position under the authority of the Deputy Minister of National Revenue".
Basically, what they seem to be saying is that this bill in no way changes the status of public servants.
At the same time, the minister says in a letter that "we can already see specific advantages", since this practice is already in effect and operational; there is now only one deputy minister who does double duty; with this bill, there will be only one deputy minister doing the job. So the minister says, "We can already see specific advantages, in particular since the administrative consolidation-". People often like to talk about consolidation when the time comes to downsize; they use softer, less offensive words. "In particular, since the administrative consolidation has already saved $30 million".
There is something that I do not understand. We are told that the status of the public servants did not change and then we are told that $30 million was saved. I cannot believe that a single deputy minister cost $30 million. At least, I hope so, and I doubt that is the case.
I understand his principles when he says that they will share computer systems and administrative services. That is true, but it changes the status of public servants. How come the bill said in the transitional provisions that it changed nothing? You must understand that it is a transitional provision in the bill. How long does the transitional period last? We will see when we analyze the bill clause by clause. We will ask the minister or his representatives to explain what it means.
The rest is clauses replacing references to two ministers in other laws with a single minister now. There is no longer a taxation division and a customs and excise division.
It is very well done. The lawyers are competent; they do good research and can find all the references in all the laws. They did a thorough job of research.
We cannot oppose the principle of streamlining-it is good and desirable, but we can always wonder if it is really the right place. The people at customs have concerns and feel that the department is moving ahead quickly with this reform. On the other hand, perhaps the public will defend the minister and say that he is not going fast enough. But I would like us to be a little more open about something, namely this. Was there really this internal study and what did it conclude? Are they being joined with the right department in the right way?
You know, it is tempting for a department to reach out in as many directions as possible and to control many things. I must say that this minister has quite a budget. The Department of Revenue has an operating budget of $2.5 billion. That is a lot. He has been given this responsibility; surely he can explain it. I do not doubt his abilities, but we must be careful not to expand a department which is already very big or to give it a role that may be broader. I share those concerns with the customs officials. We still support the principle but we will have questions to ask before the finance committee, of which I am a member, and I will be there when this bill will be studied.
I would like to go back to a point I mentioned earlier, namely the first bill tabled in the 35th Parliament. Bill C-2, other than being the first bill tabled, will not make history by a long shot. But if we look at past Parliaments, I do not imagine that we would find many first bills similar to this one; they would have been mere administrative measures, as a rule.
There is more to this bill. What will happen in the medium term? What kind of structure will there be? How far do we want to go with integration? That is another concern that people have. Will we have regional offices poorly adapted to the reality of customs and taxation? The minister seems to be denying it, and I hope so. We have to watch out for this. Again, we must be careful not to cause inefficiencies as we have done in the past. Regional offices have not always been closer to reality, and I am in a good position to confirm it, Mr. Speaker. It may not be of great concern to us here in this House, but in my riding, the office of the Quebec agriculture ministry is located in an urban center and not in either of the two agricultural areas. This is very frustrating for farmers and I sympathize with them.
We must do the same thing so that customs officers do not have problems with regional offices-they are not very close to the border-as long as they have very direct and close relations.
The Auditor General and others talked about closer relations between customs personnel, the Solicitor General and other authorities, in order to improve control mechanisms. I am confident that the minister is taking this into account and that, during this Parliament, he will try to work more closely with others to improve operations.
We on this side of the House often talk about administrative overlap but we know that interdepartmental co-operation is often very difficult, not necessarily because of individuals but because it is not a simple thing. This is something we must look into.
The Auditor General often says in his reports that we must improve interdepartmental efficiency and I hope that the minister will work on this during this mandate because his department has an important role to play in this respect. It is his department that collects money from the taxpayers. It does not do much for one's popularity to collect money from taxpayers' pockets, not these days, Mr. Speaker. Especially as I feel they are not getting good value for their money.
That is what they tell us every day. I will be travelling back to my riding in a little while and I am sure that I will hear the same thing again this weekend as usual. I will be embarrassed to say that we, in this House, are now working on a bill that will cut a deputy minister's position to save $30 million. The bill says there will be no public service cuts but the minister's comments clearly suggest that there will be cuts, retirements or early retirements. Something has got to give. This $30 million must come from somewhere. We cannot pull numbers out of thin air like this. We must explain how this $30 million has been saved.
It is funny; every time we must make cuts or whatever, we deny being opposed to cuts but we cut $30 million and say we have become more efficient. Too bad it is taking us so long to realize such things.
I am not convinced that this government will be better than its predecessors in this regard. We often react poorly, but if one looks behind the measures taken, one always finds the same old speeches. Governments come and go but the arguments stay the same. We have cut back, therefore we have become more efficient, and we acted in the best interests of individuals. Well, I hope so.
One day the minister is going to tell us how he saved this $30 million and state more clearly where we are going in the future with a closer integration of customs and taxation duties. I know he is still concerned with improving service to clients. He said so this week and I congratulate him. Individual tax returns may come a week earlier this year and there will be simplified forms for seniors, which is a good thing. We are glad, people will like it.
People are more worried about the amount they pay and the unfairness they see in the system than when they receive their tax refunds, if they get one. There is still a long way to go. I hope that the House will soon have an opportunity to consider such measures.
I would prefer that the Finance committee first examine the issue, since the minister directed us to work on the GST reform or, if you prefer, on changing that tax. In any case, some changes will have to be made, at least regarding the system as a value added tax program. However, I would like us also to examine tax expenditures, including the impact of tax incentives on job creation, as well as the objectives of such measures and their cost.
This week, the government announced a reform of social programs. However, in this particular case, we are not being told about a tax reform, or even the possibility of such an initiative, which Canadians would be much more happier about. Indeed, taxpayers would like to know that we are at least looking at improving the taxation system. But the government is silent on this issue; it does not even work on it because this is not yet part of its agenda. I guess we will have to add an annex to the red book. As I said earlier, new initiatives will have to be included; some improvements will have to be made. Surely, there are people who have worked on the draft of this legislation; the message was heard, the staff was increased and the government will undoubtedly be able to come up with a much improved version.