Mr. Speaker, as far as Bill S-9, whose purpose is to amend the August 31, 1994 tax convention between Canada and the United States, is concerned, we do not see any major problems with these amendments to a tax convention that was first signed with the U.S. in 1980, if I am not mistaken, and then amended in 1983 and again in 1984. So this is the third time we are amending this tax convention to make it better with time and facilitate trade between Canada and the U.S. to the maximum extent possible. I will get back to these trade relations between Canada and the U.S. and between Canada and its other trading partners toward the end of my speech.
Of course, since this is my first speech in this House since Parliament reconvened, I cannot help but point out that our legislative agenda is extremely modest. The bills we are reviewing are anything but controversial or would have very little impact in the short term. In other words, we are trying to dispose of our leftovers.
While we might have expected, upon returning to the House, to be able to debate the reforms announced by the government that are late in coming with respect to unemployment, the old age pension plan, the human resources investment fund as well as the long-awaited GST reform that the Liberal Party promised in the election to carry out within two years. Time is running out; we are almost there. We now realize that this will not happen. There is absolutely nothing on the table indicating this can be done within the next two years.
Since these matters are not on the table, we are debating those bills that were tabled. However, we can deplore the fact that a government which claims to be concerned with job creation and the real problems has put so little on the table for the people of Quebec and Canada to enable us to discuss the economic and social future of this country as seen by this government. Instead, we are debating other important issues. There is no denying that tax conventions are important, but we would have liked to be able to discuss other topics as well.
Coming back to this convention and the subject of tax conventions in general, the purpose of tax conventions is to avoid double taxation, that is to say the levying of taxes in two different countries on foreign investments. This fosters the free movement of capital without putting tax barriers in the way of investing in other regions. And this fits in with the strong world-wide trend towards free capital flow. This is a good thing in that it allows resources to be directed where they will be the most useful to make better use of often scarce resources. In time, this will enable us to improve our economic system, provided of course that we manage to incorporate the other factors.
So, avoiding double taxation and ensuring that fiscal constraints are not created fosters trade between countries. Bilateral trade between Canada and the United States is constantly growing. As well, trade between Quebec and the U.S. is also on the rise, particularly since the free trade agreement, which received strong support from Quebecers, came into effect. In fact, Quebecers were
the instigators of this agreement. Therefore, we are dealing with a strong tendency.
We know that a north-south pattern, that is commercial trade between the U.S. and Canada or Quebec, is often much more natural than an east-west movement.
We often overlook the fact that it is very appealing to trade with several northern U.S. states, given their huge potential market, both for Quebec and for Canada. The same is true for western provinces in particular, but also for Ontario. There is a huge market out there and this is why we must ensure the best possible movement of capital, goods and services between the two countries.
I am pleased to see that the Liberal Party finally changed its tune regarding international trade. As you remember, the Liberals were strongly opposed to the free trade agreement. Even during the election campaign, they still had some reservations. However, once they came to office and saw the benefits of that treaty, common sense prevailed. I am glad to see that when the government is confronted with economic reality, common sense prevails. And this will always be the case in the future.
I am also pleased to see that the Prime Minister's views on international trade, which seemed so irresponsible to me during the election campaign, have now been adjusted in light of reality.
Sure, we can criticize someone who says one thing during the election campaign only to act differently once in office. However, that irresponsibility is not related to what is said or done once in office: rather, it has to do with the promises made to Canadians during the campaign and the resulting expectations.
The government's attitude is now much more responsible. And that is true in the case of international trade. We are pleased to see that Canada is prepared to accept Chile as a party to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Indeed, we are glad to see that when there are real opportunities to promote economic trade, the government leaves politics aside and strives to promote the development of new markets.
All this leads me to believe that, if Quebecers decide, as they will be asked to do very shortly, to opt for political sovereignty and be in charge of their own political agenda, their tax system and their economy, logic and common sense will prevail. I think Quebecers realize that. My riding is right on the border with Ontario, and I think people are well aware of the day-to-day reality of this when they go and buy or sell goods outside the province. So the economy is one thing and, in many cases, the interests of partisan politics are something else altogether.
As far as tax treaties are concerned, I must say that although it is not the first time we have discussed tax treaties since the beginning of this session-there were a number of other occasions-we never really tackled a problem mentioned by the auditor general, when he said that tax treaties were a very good way to avoid double taxation but that in some cases, when tax rates differed substantially in each country, they could lead to a tax haven. It could be very attractive for some people to put their profits on the books of a foreign branch instead of letting them be realized by parent corporations which are often located in countries with higher tax rates.
This is quite a problem. The auditor general gave 16 examples which could be considered tax havens, to varying degrees. Some very slight changes were made in one of the finance minister's two budgets, but they were not more than that. There have been no further discussions on the subject since that time, but we will have to do it sooner or later.
Trade is expanding between countries throughout the world. The free trade movement is spreading and covers all of North America. If you go to South America, each country has its own tax system. Increasingly, multinationals are using the so-called butterfly system, in which certain components are manufactured by one company and other components by another company. They are all connected to the same corporation which, in the process, manages to pay the lowest possible tax rate.
Companies do that, they hire tax experts to check the various tax rates and best locations for booking losses and profits. These companies sell goods to each other, to their various branches, and they can often artificially change their prices so as to channel their profits to the country with the most attractive tax rate and their losses to another country. Furthermore, in Canada, interest payments on loans are tax deductible.
So a company can decide it is attractive to borrow money here, to use our tax system to deduct interest costs, and then try to channel profits to another location. We must not forget that capital losses are also deductible in this country, which is normal, so they can declare their losses here, take advantage of the deduction on interest payments and channel their profits abroad. This is quite a problem.
It is less of a problem with our biggest trading partner, the United States. But that does not mean it is not a problem in the 16 cases listed by the auditor general. As I said, we must not necessarily assume that the same degree is involved in all 16 cases, but an extremely thorough analysis would need to be done, looking at each situation closely.
The government has undertaken no action in this connection. The finance minister has even been questioned on this matter on several occasions and has never even admitted that it was a
problem for him. Under such circumstances, we have a long way to go. It is like denying reality. As you know, in solving problems the first step is admitting there is a problem. I therefore hope that my colleagues in the government who are present will be able to make the minister aware that there is a major problem he will have to address. It is certain that our Parliament can pass tax conventions piecemeal, one at a time, as they are modified and adopted. Others will need to be adopted in future with other countries with which we might create economic ties.
There is much talk of Canada's turning its eyes to Asian markets. One day there will also be talk of agreements with them, and that will have to be looked into. It would therefore be rather appropriate for somebody, somewhere, who is concerned with real problems and admits to being concerned with real problems to say that this is something that needs further examination.
There is no denying it could become a financial problem, at a time when we are continuing to tighten the screws on society's most disadvantaged, claiming rightly that public finances are in a sorry state. Socially, however, it is becoming hard to accept, because the same people are always being hit.
I understand that these things are complex and not easy to explain to the public, but it is our job to follow them.
According to a newspaper article I was reading, there is even a Liberal member challenging this and other tax conventions and other government actions, on sometimes legitimate and sometimes debatable issues. So, as we can see, even within their ranks, things are not unanimous. It would be worthwhile discussing this seriously.
The Standing Committee on Finance would be an appropriate venue, but this must not become simply a matter of passing a hot potato on to the committee so the minister does not have to deal with it. We have to give some quick thought to the situation.
This bill is at second reading and will go to the Standing Committee on Finance between second and third reading. There is one aspect of this convention, which the parliamentary secretary talked about earlier and which we will be wanting clarification on. It has to do with the fact that an amendment in 1988 in the United States reduced the non taxable amount of estates for foreigners from $600,000 to $60,000. This tax convention re-establishes the non taxable amount of foreigners' estates at $600,000.
As, today, we are correcting matters and returning to the 1988 figure, it appears that the amendment is retroactive. In a number of cases, therefore, it will mean expenditures, because at the same time a deduction will be allowed for amounts paid as taxes on estates.
This point requires some technical clarification. I am not sure I have hit on the effects of the provision, but we would be happy to clarify this in committee and to have a better look at what it is about. I noted that the parliamentary secretary indicated this was a good thing to do. I know that the matter was discussed in the Senate as well. We in the finance committee can seek clarification from department officials and make sure that, if it is done retroactively, there is some logic behind it and that the government does not lose a lot of money to people who might be able to afford these taxes.
It is a sensitive issue. I have some problems with it. It is difficult to accept such changes on a retroactive basis. This is something governments are increasingly resorting to and it is a rather dangerous trend. It would be better if retroactive amendments were to the people's advantage, but that is not always the case. We have been through this before. I remember in particular the cool reception given the rather important retroactive amendment made by the former government of the current leader of the No side in Quebec.
It is difficult because individuals are being asked to act more responsibly, to plan for their retirement, and so on, while the government can decide to change the rules of the game from year to year. The retroactive effect of one provision of the amendments to the convention is something that should be clarified in committee.
In conclusion, may I remind you that this tax convention is nothing new. These are simply amendments to a convention that was signed with the U.S. 15 years ago. This is the third time it is being amended. That is quite normal. Things evolve with time, allowing us to improve economic relations, especially since the 1988 free trade agreement with the U.S., which is an important instrument of future trade for both Quebec and Canada.
I am happy to see that when the government side does something concrete for the economy, common sense prevails over last year's electoral stand on the U.S. They must be pragmatic enough to make sure that businesspeople in both Quebec and Canada can do business and be as profitable and efficient as possible so they can contribute to the country's economic growth.
I hope they will take the same attitude during the Quebec referendum campaign, although I doubt they will because of their partisan politics. But common sense will prevail again the day after. The economy is one thing, but politics is something else.