Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak to hon. members on a subject that is close if not always dear to the hearts of Canadians.
Taxes mean jobs for the unemployed, hospital beds for the sick, better schools for our children. They affect the quality of life of our seniors and the protection and support of Canadians in need.
They affect modern transportation and communication systems, investment and competition. They concern workers' compensation, pension plans, health and safety, environmental and labour standards.
Taxation gives governments the resources needed to provide Canadians with the social and economic programs that they need and demand. Ultimately, the discussion of taxation is a discussion about our prosperity as a society.
Taxation has traditionally been a contract between citizens and governments to deliver these programs in exchange for the moneys that Canadians give as a result of their hard work and based on their financial ability.
In recent years we have seen the viability of that contract renegotiated as reflected in the phenomenon of the underground economy and also in smuggling. Faith in that contract and the trust that is needed to maintain it will dissolve unless governments give Canadians the best possible value for their tax dollars.
The government is determined to act in such way that Canadians again trust their government. Without that trust, we will be unable to provide the necessary programs, to reduce the deficit and eventually to lower the tax burden of Canadians.
We must let the public know what is going on, what the choices are, and why we are making those choices.
As revenue minister my commitment is to ensure at all times the integrity of our voluntary tax system. I recognize public confidence in our tax system is something that we have to earn. I and all members of the Department of National Revenue work every day to do just that.
We are working to reduce the burden of compliance, to ensure Canadians get real value from the revenue administration, and to guarantee fairness throughout the tax system.
Revenue Canada has come a long way in its efforts to improve administration.
We believe that we must be attentive to the needs of individuals and companies. We must adapt to a constantly changing society and to the business community.
We must be fair and equitable and I believe we are. We must be transparent and we are. We must listen to Canadians and we do.
Specifically we have a problem resolution program to help find solutions for taxpayers with difficulties. We have a voluntary disclosure policy for those with special problems, particularly problems of non-compliance. We have a declaration of taxpayers' rights to ensure equity in the system.
We listen on an ongoing basis and we consult with the provinces, the small business advisory committee, the large business advisory committee, the charities consultative committee, the seniors advisory committee, and the members of Parliament who act quite properly on behalf of their constituents in bringing problems or difficulties to my attention.
Tomorrow marks six months, the half-year of my time as Minister of National Revenue. In that period 1,165 letters have come to me from elected officials. Virtually they have been exclusively from members of the House and senators, although occasionally I get letters from members of provincial legislatures, mayors and city councillors.
I repeat that it is quite right and proper for representations to be made to the Minister of National Revenue by members of Parliament. I assure members of the House in all parties, all of which have sent me correspondence about concerns of their constituents, that all such letters are treated by us as fast as we can and as thoroughly as we can. The reviews we give to the cases are as fair as possible. I should add that in every case the decision ultimately rendered is entirely in accordance with taxation laws.
We have introduced in Revenue Canada a very successful E-file program that processes returns more quickly and gets the money owed to Canadians back to them faster than ever before. At the present time returns or refund cheques on E-file run about 11, 12 or 13 days. Of course that is an average. In some cases we get cheques out to people within the week.
Through the administrative consolidation of customs and excise and taxation we have created opportunities for significant administrative savings for taxpayers. This one measure alone, Bill C-2, the first substantive bill introduced in the House after the new government took office, has already resulted in a saving of approximately $30 million through improved administration.
We are working with the provinces to tackle the underground economy through co-operation and increased exchange of information. I must add that Quebec was the first province to conclude an agreement with the federal government on this subject.
The solutions of today require co-operation among all Canadians, individuals, businesses and governments, because the totality of the three levels of government represents the real tax burden on Canadians. There may be three levels of government, but it is certainly true there is only one level of taxpayer.
Federal, provincial and local governments must adopt a harmonized approach to ensure a fair and integrated tax system based on the principles of equity, efficiency and effectiveness, words that are in this motion.
If all three levels of government work together-and that has certainly been the cry of witness after witness before the finance committee-we can have in the future the possibility of reducing the tax burden on Canadians.
The department and I as revenue minister regularly meet with representatives of the provinces and we will continue to do so in order to obtain tax administration improvements quickly.
Canadians want solutions to tax problems when these arise. Canadians want reform but not disruption.
That is what we are doing. We are implementing reforms on a constant, ongoing basis, always with a strong sense that Canadians whether as individuals or in their businesses have invested a great deal of time and effort in understanding the existing tax system.
When we reform various elements of the system we need to give everyone the time to understand and accommodate the changes, the time to build on the knowledge they already have, rather than throw everything out and start again.
The motion we are debating today seeks equity, efficiency and effectiveness in the tax system. The government, the Minister of Finance and myself in particular are seeking to give substance to those principles with a pragmatic approach in which the benefits of change are constantly being weighed against the cost of disruption. We are also trying to do so with a high degree of sensitivity to the reality that these principles must be balanced.
Equity sometimes comes at a cost in terms of efficiency, for example. It is fine to pursue lofty goals, but when the lofty goals conflict one has to recognize there is a need for compromise and understanding. That spirit has motivated our approach to reform in taxation so far. However I should add we are under no illusion that balancing these forces and these reforms certainly does not preclude action.
Let me just read the titles of some bills which we have had in the House since Parliament began in January of this year. The first bill, Bill C-2, an act to amend the Department of National Revenue. It is the one I mentioned earlier. It is the consolidation of the administration of customs, excise and taxation in one department.
Bill C-5, an act to amend the customs tariff, to which royal assent was given on March 24 of this year. This extended the general preferential tariff for certain countries to June 30, 2004 unless an earlier date is fixed by order in council.
Bill C-9, an act to amend the Income Tax Act. Bill C-11, an act to amend the Excise Act, the Customs Act and the Tobacco Sales to Young Persons Act. Bill C-13, an act to amend the Excise Tax Act. Bill C-15, an act to amend certain income tax law amendments.
These are the acts relating to improving revenue administration in Canada which have been introduced in the House since January. We all know the number of acts that have been introduced is not extensive. We are relatively new in this Parliament but let us think about how many acts have related to the revenue portfolio and to the concept of improving and refining the tax system. We have had a veritable torrent of bills that all have as their objective improving the tax system.
I believe the record of reform the motion seeks is already here. I can promise the House and members who have spoken that there will be more. However as we do it, I wish to add, we will continue to be very sensitive because in our view there is a baby in this particular bath that we need to take care of very carefully. The reason I cannot support the motion is that in essence it would throw out the baby with the bath water, would throw out the bathtub and in essence gut the House as well.
The approach of the motion would not achieve the equity, efficiency and effectiveness that I believe we all seek. It would only serve to create confusion, resentment, fear and costs, all of which we in government-and I am sure members of the opposition-should seek to avoid in the tax system.
Canadians are sensible people. They do not want change just for the sake of change. They want improvements with the minimum disruption that can be had to achieve those improvements. That message is coming through loud and clear in the hearings of the finance committee dealing with replacement of the goods and services tax.
We in government have heard that message. We heard it before the election. We heard it from our constituents after the election and specifically in the finance committee on the GST, again an area of reform of the tax system I did not mention in my listing of the bills. We have heard it there time after time after time.
The government will continue to change the tax system in areas where the benefit clearly outweighs the cost. We will continue to seek to improve the operation of the tax system and the efficiency of the department that administers it, namely the Department of National Revenue. We will continue to consult and discuss with other governments, with individuals, with experts, with academics, and with businesses. We will continue to enforce the law as it is written until it is changed by a vote in Parliament.
Our effectiveness in this regard is essential to securing the one true essential of an equitable, efficient and effective tax system: the long term confidence Canadians have in the tax system and in the value of the services they receive from the government. When we act against tax cheaters and smugglers we are acting to support that confidence. It is not fair at all that jobs are lost because of tax cheating or smuggling. It is not fair when revenue is lost because some people are dishonest, when the deficit grows and when legitimate business is forced to compete unfairly against those who evade their taxes.
Because of individuals who do not pay their fair share of tax, it is difficult, if not impossible, for governments at any level to satisfy Canadians' demands for economic growth, lower deficits and meaningful jobs for the unemployed.
Canada is a wonderful, successful country, the envy of the world. But I ask members of this House and all Canadians the following question.
Can we afford to have one sick child turned away from a hospital because lost revenue has created a lack of beds? Can we allow honest and productive Canadians not to enjoy retirement in reasonable comfort and happiness because tax cheating has destroyed the value of their pensions? Can we tolerate a single business to close and lay off hardworking Canadians because we cannot guarantee a level playing field with their competitors who do not pay their taxes as they should? Clearly the answer is no.
We seek the objectives of equity, efficiency and effectiveness for the tax system. We believe we can achieve that, as I trust I have shown in this speech today, by constantly striving to improve the system. I support, and I am sure all members of this House support, equity, efficiency and effectiveness. But the method of completely throwing out the present system, completely throwing it out to change, is not in my view in the interest of this country or the Canadian taxpayer.