Mr. Speaker, we are putting forward today a set of measures that marks significant progress toward the replacement of the GST. We are announcing the signing of a memoranda of understanding between the federal government and the governments of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador. This is the first step toward an integrated federal-provincial sales tax.
The province of Quebec is concluding the harmonization process this year. We are committed to working with the remaining provinces to the same end and are confident that, over time, Canada will indeed develop a single sales tax system. In addition, we are tabling a notice of ways and means motion proposing over 100 measures to streamline and simplify the operation of Canada's sales tax system. These measures are an essential part of the new architecture of a much improved sales tax system.
Taken together, we believe the component of this package constitutes a major advance in responsible sales tax reform. We believe that consumers, taxpayers and business, particularly small business, will benefit. True, this is not perfection, but perfection is not possible in the real world where tax policy has to apply. It is, however, real improvement.
Let me address at the outset the question not of responsible tax policy but a broader question, that of responsible government. In the red book we wrote: "A Liberal government will replace the GST with a system that generates equivalent revenues, is fairer to consumers and to small business, minimizes disruptions to small business and promotes federal-provincial fiscal co-operation and harmonization". We believe that today's plan begins that process.
We know that many Canadians believed we would be able to do more than we are announcing today. Indeed, we had hoped we would be able to do more. However, there is something Canadians deserve above all else and that is government that is responsible in its management of the economy and honest in what it does. Let me be direct with the House and with Canadians.
During the election campaign we were right to criticize the GST. It created overlap and duplication among governments. It was costing small business time, energy and money; the price paid for having to keep two sets of books, to track two sets of transactions and to deal with two tax collectors. We were right to say that all that was wrong. It still is. However, we were mistaken to have believed that once it was anchored in place a completely different alternative would be within reach, responsibly. It has not been.
The honest truth is that for two and a half years we looked at virtually every conceivable alternative. Some were not possible or desirable because of their economic impact, others because of the nature of our federation. What we have arrived at is not the best alternative conceivable; it is the best alternative possible and it is in keeping with our red book commitment.
We could have dressed up our announcement today. We could have pretended it is more than it is. Today's announcement begins the process of replacing the GST, it does not complete it. We could have cynically claimed this announcement was the panacea, that as of today the GST was dead, buried and scrapped. We know not being able to say this today means many Canadians will be disappointed. We understand that disappointment. We share it. We
want Canadians to understand fully the efforts we have made going back more than two years in order to avoid that disappointment.
The finance committee of the House looked at this issue, beginning immediately after the election. It heard nearly 500 witnesses and received more than 700 briefs-from consumers, from experts, from business. The committee looked at 20 alternatives and it found all of them wanting.
It concluded, as have we, that the best route to replace the GST was a simplified, integrated federal-provincial value-added tax. Concurrent with the work of that committee and thereafter, the government has worked without rest on this file.
As a government we evaluated every proposal brought to our attention, every option open to us. We considered other types of taxes. We looked at different combinations of taxes. We looked at options apart from taxation. We looked at everything. Some options might have made cynical, short term political sense, but none made good policy sense.
Let me explain by beginning with some basics. An inescapable fact is the GST brings in almost $18 billion a year, 13 per cent of the federal government's revenue. In the red book we made it very clear we could not give up $18 billion in revenue, nor could we cut spending by that amount to compensate for the loss that would be entailed, for the purpose of spending cuts must first be to bring the deficit down.
Therefore from the beginning our focus was on finding alternatives to the GST, either alternative sources of revenue or building on taxes that already existed. We looked at 20 options. Among them were a payroll tax, a wealth transfer tax, a national retail sales tax and a wholesale tax. None of them worked.
Let us look at three examples: we considered the business transfer tax or BTT. The BTT has been proposed before but is has never been tried anywhere in the world. The uncertainty for business and the cost of implementing a totally new system is not a risk that can be taken lightly.
We looked at a personal expenditure tax, where tax is paid on the difference between an individual's total income and his or her total savings for the year. However, there are serious disadvantages with this option. It would be very intrusive. It would be much more complex for taxpayers-in terms of record-keeping and compliance.
We looked at what is called a turnover or a transaction tax, in which tax is charged at each and every stage in the production and distribution process through a lower levy on a firm's sales. Unlike the GST, their are no rebates. The problem is the same as with a retail sales tax. Large manufacturing companies can get around the tax by making products in house, and small companies cannot.
In the export sector Canadian business would be dealt a blow. Why? At each stage of the production and the distribution process Canadian components would be taxed and the tax would be embedded in the price of our exports. Who would benefit from that? Foreign competitors, not Canadian producers.
These are but a few of the alternatives we looked at and concluded that none was satisfactory. Either they came nowhere near raising the revenue we need or they failed to meet one or more of the tests of responsible taxation of fairness, simplicity and economic efficiency.
Finally, we looked at making up the revenue that would be lost by replacing the GST through increasing other taxes that already exist. We looked at an across the board approach. We looked at more targeted approaches. We looked at increasing corporate income taxes and excise taxes. It was clear that no matter what we did under any conceivable scenario, unduly large increases in personal income taxes would be required, and that was simply unacceptable.
That briefly summarizes what was a very lengthy search for a system and a solution completely different from the GST. The results of our search were not what we had hoped but they did make very clear the direction we should take.
While we concluded there was no alternative today to a value added tax, we also concluded there is an alternative to the GST such as it now is, and that is a much better value added tax that is harmonized.
Governments need the revenue the current tax system brings in, but Canadians do not need the headaches the current tax system causes. The goal we have arrived at is a simplified integrated federal-provincial value added tax. The process we have embarked on is to put the framework in place now so that provinces can join in when their own individual priorities make that possible; that is, when they are ready.
With today's announcement we are now on the way to having a single federal-provincial sales tax in four provinces. Other prov-
inces are waiting to see how the new system works before they join in. In the end we are confident Canada will eventually have a single sales tax system.
We will continue to work with individual provinces as their circumstances permit. In the meantime unanimity need not and should not stand in the way. Let me describe the improvements we believe will flow from the approach being put forward today.
First, an integrated federal-provincial value added tax reduces the burden on business, particularly on small business, created by the current system. It means there would be no longer separate federal or provincial sales taxes of different types operating on different bases with all the complexity and the inefficiency that entails.
Canada is the only developed economy in the world that tolerates two completely different sales taxes operating at the same cash register. No one else puts up with it and it is very clear why. Patchwork sales tax systems are second rate systems particularly in an economy that is increasingly integrated globally and domestically.
Under an integrated approach this will change. There will be one sales tax, not two. There will be one tax base, not two. There will be one tax rate in a province, not two. There will be one sales tax administration, not two. What does this mean? It means life will be simpler.
Take for example the case of a store that sells washing machines. Today the retailer has the burden of dealing with two entirely different sales tax systems. The store must first total up any sales that are made to exempt purchases. It has to keep a separate record system to prove that such sales are legitimately exempt from provincial sales tax.
Then at the end of each month that store must calculate the amount of provincial sales tax collected and remit it to the provincial government. At the end of each quarter along with the provincial sales tax calculation the retailer must also calculate the amount of federal sales tax collected, deduct the amount of tax paid on all of those purchases and remit the difference to the federal government. Not only that, but throughout the year the retailer must deal with two separate bureaucracies if he or she has any sales tax questions and faces the possibility at any time of having to deal with two separate sales tax auditors.
No wonder that small businesses in particular are demanding that governments do something to address their sales tax compliance burden. The fact is we are now doing something. All this will change under the new system. It will be better for consumers. It will mean a reduced paper burden for small business, less time and money tied up unproductively, one tax form, one process, one system.
The Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants has estimated that a harmonized national sales tax system could save Canadian businesses as much as $700 million per year. And because there will only be one tax collector, that same analysis suggests that the provinces could save an additional $100 million annually on their administration once such a system is fully in place.
Canadians want an end to overlap and duplication between governments. On sales tax, this integrated system would end it once and for all.
Furthermore a harmonized value added tax will be economically more efficient. Not only will businesses save money and time but their products should become more competitive.
At present businesses throughout Canada pay provincial sales tax on a broad range of things they themselves buy to make products or to keep their businesses running. This increases their costs and in turn leads to higher prices for their goods. As a result Canadian goods competing with imports at home or exports abroad have provincial sales tax embedded in their price. In fact because the tax becomes embedded in the production and distribution chain, the prices of our goods are often inflated not by one but by many layers of provincial retail sales tax.
Under this proposal that competitive disadvantage would end. For instance exports are the engine of our economy. As a result of this reform Canadian business will be even more successful in markets abroad. This in turn means jobs for Canadians at home. Consumers should also see benefits under the new system.
Let me address directly the contention that a harmonized value added tax shifts the tax burden from business to consumers. Let me also address the contention that consumers will lose because a broader range of goods and particular services is taxed under this approach. These arguments are simply wrong.
The fact is that today as mentioned businesses are taxed by the provinces on all the items they must buy in order to make their products, deliver their services and keep their businesses going. Anyone who believes that business does not pass on these provincial sales taxes to the consumer is simply naive. If business pays a tax up front, it is consumers who pay for it in the end. The tax is embedded in the price. This is true for all products and services produced in Canada, whether or not they are taxed at the final point of sale.
For example, some may believe that they do not pay tax on a haircut when there is none directly charged to them by the barber or the hairdresser. That is not the case. The price does include tax: the
tax the barber or the hairdresser pays on their supplies fromtheir scissors to their salon equipment to the shampoo. Whenthey decide what price to charge, they pass these costs on totheir clients.
Under an integrated value added tax system, this changes completely. Provincial retail sales taxes will no longer be paid by businesses during the production and distribution process. Therefore, for goods and services not previously taxed, prices will go up by less than the full extent of the provincial tax because the embedded taxes will be removed. For those products and services that are presently taxed, their prices should fall. This would be the case even if the overall tax rate did not come down. Why? Again, it is because the embedded tax will disappear, lowering prices.
Furthermore, there is another advantage to broadening the base. When we do not tax services, we distort the economy. We are imposing a burden on some businesses but not on others. A broader tax base spreads the burden fairly to all sectors and to all consumers. For instance, of significance in the light of today's announcement, for the harmonizing provinces in Atlantic Canada the broader base is one of the factors that allows for a sharp decline in the overall sales tax rate.
Finally, one of the most frustrating aspects of the GST is the fact that without carrying around a calculator, consumers often do not know what things are going to cost until they get to the checkout counter. Every time a Canadian buys a candy bar or a pair of socks, GST is not on the sticker or the tag but is added as a rude awakening at the cash register.
Therefore, the agreements that will be arrived at pursuant to the memorandums of understanding we are announcing today will put an end to that practice. In the three Atlantic provinces that are harmonizing, beginning April 1, 1997 the price will include the tax. The price people see will be the price people pay. However, the new tax will also be transparent. Vendors will be able to show the tax on their bills and we will be consulting with businesses on how best to do this.
Today's announcement entails major structural change. It represents an important overhaul of the sales tax system. This government has consistently acted on the principle that people and governments need to be able to plan and adjust to structural change, and where required, we have been prepared to provide help to those who face adjustment costs up front.
For example, payments were made to provinces to address revenue losses they incurred under the major tax reform in 1972. And adjustment assistance was provided in each and every one of our budgets. For example, last year we provided resources to facilitate the adjustment flowing from elimination of subsidies under the Western Grain Transportation Act to the western provinces, as we did with the Atlantic freight subsidies to Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.
Today we are following the same precedents. An adjustment framework will be put in place to share the costs with those provinces which would experience revenue losses from harmonization in excess of 5 per cent of their current sales tax revenue.
In addition to the three provinces previously mentioned, this would include Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. On the other hand, the revenues of British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario would not be reduced sufficiently to trigger compensation under the formula, nor Quebec's for the same reason, either today or in 1990, the time it signed the MOU on harmonization with the federal government.
Under the set formula the federal government will provide 100 per cent of the balance of revenue losses in years one and two, 50 per cent in year three and 25 per cent in year four. The formula has been applied consistently to each province that has decided to harmonize and it will remain open to the other provinces for the foreseeable future.
Given the benefits that will flow from harmonization, we believe the total cost to the federal government, about $960 million for the three participating provinces spread over four years, is a responsible and reasonable investment. The federal and provincial governments will be sharing about equally in the adjustment costs over this period. The assistance will end after year four by which time the provinces will have had adequate time to adjust. I must emphasize this adjustment assistance will not jeopardize our deficit targets. They are secure.
The measures being announced today include a package of over 100 changes designed to streamline and simplify the operation of Canada's value added tax system. These improvements result from extensive consultations over the past two years with businesses, particularly small businesses, consumer associations and other groups.
Some of these are technical and sector-specific. Many will have a positive impact on those they affect.
For example, as part of our commitment to assist charities and non-profit organizations, new rules will be put in place. As a result, about 10,000 charities will no longer be required to register for and administer the GST.
The provision that remove the tax from medical devices used by persons with disabilities will be broadened, and clarified. More equipment and supplies for Canada's farmers will be made tax-free. The rules for employee benefits are being simplified-an area
of the sales tax that has been the focus of small business anger from day one.
In addition, we will be streamlining accounting, interest, penalty, administration and enforcement provisions across all federal tax laws, something that will go a long way to simplify the system for small business.
These are significant changes that will be of immediate importance to those concerned. However, there is one thing that is not being changed. The credit provided to low income Canadians and the rebates provided to municipalities, universities, schools, hospitals, qualifying charities and non-profit organizations remain intact.
The provinces joining us today clearly recognize the gains that flow from this reform. The fact is that in a region where the need to secure economic growth is as acute as anywhere, tax rationalization and simplification is probably one of the most beneficial job creation initiatives that could be undertaken.
The benefit of acting in concert so that reform in each province is reinforced by parallel change in the other maximizes the improvement for Atlantic enterprise and consumers. The benefit of a more efficient Atlantic economy means companies and workers will be able to compete more successfully in world markets.
The benefits of less overlap and duplication mean reduced administrative costs for governments and small business. For example, small business with less than $30,000 of taxable sales will no longer have to register for either federal or provincial sales tax.
There are benefits that will result from a lower sales tax rate. When this reform is fully implemented, the official tax rate will be 3 per cent lower in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and 4 per cent lower in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Indeed, the real tax reduction will be even greater because the new system will eliminate tax on tax. The effective rate reduction will then, in fact, be almost 4 per cent in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and almost 5 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The announcements today are not the end of the process. They are a stage. As part of moving towards an integrated federal-provincial value-added tax, discussions with the three provinces will now take place to turn the memoranda of understanding announced today into final detailed agreements to take effect on April 1 of next year.
At the same time, with Quebec's harmonization process proceeding, we are very much open to continued discussions with the remaining governements to move foward towards integration on the basis that has now been established.
In summary, while the strategy we are proposing is not the best solution in an ideal world, we believe it is the best solution in the real world. The alternative would have been to have embraced some option that would have been superficially attractive, but in the end would have been more complex for Canadians, would have reduced the capacity of government to provide needed services and would have thrown the clean-up of the nation's finances severely off track. This we were not prepared to do.
We are not pretending that our proposals are more than they are. They will have to stand on their own merits. We are not making changes for change's sake. We are making changes that make sense. That is what we were elected to do. We were elected to govern, to make responsible choices and that is what we are doing today.