Mr. Speaker, it is a privilege to enter the debate on Bill C-10. Essentially, we should recognize that it is a good bill. It moves in the right direction and does some of the right things. In particular, it changes the word “grants” to “payments”. They were grants in lieu of taxes and now they will be be payments in lieu of taxes. In terms of what has been happening in the House in the last little while concerning grants, and the auditor general's comments yesterday before the HRDC committee and the reports of his statements this morning in the National Post , we can easily see that perhaps it was even some kind of a portent on the part of the minister of public works to change the word “grants” to “payments”. There are some good reasons he would want payments rather than grants.
We need to recognize that the bill accommodates much of what ought to be happening in the world of government and in the world of business generally.
The bill is also supported by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which has suggested that there are some things the bill should have accommodated that it did not.
I should also indicate that there was some reticence on the part of departmental officials as well as the minister to make certain amendments. I think he should have adopted some of the proposed amendments, but he chose not to. I will speak about them a bit later.
The third thing we should recognize is that we can support the bill as Reformers because our policy is very clear. It states that all laws pertaining to individuals and the private sector apply equally to the Government of Canada, its personnel, its agencies and parliament.
We do not believe that a parliamentarian is above the law. Neither do we believe that individuals who work for the Government of Canada ought to be above the law. They are subject to the law just as any other citizen ought to be subject to the law. This is particularly relevant when it comes to the business of taxes to be paid to municipalities or tax assessing authorities where there are government owned buildings and the municipality or the taxing authority provides services in the form of roads, infrastructure and utilities. It costs money to provide those services and government should not be exempt from paying an amount that is fair, equitable and comparable to that paid by other taxpayers to the taxing authority.
The same issue applies to crown corporations. We should be clearly cognizant of the fact that both crown corporations and the government ought to be responsible and pay their legitimate dues to the taxing authorities which provide services to government properties.
There are some very serious issues that ought to be talked about. The constitution of Canada says very clearly that the minister or the government cannot be forced to pay taxes to the taxing authority in the municipality where a particular piece of real estate might be located. The constitution says that the government is exempt.
This legislation has been crafted in such a way that the minister may pay in lieu of taxes certain moneys to the taxing authority. The key word is “may”. It should be “shall”. Just like the people, the government should have to pay, but the constitution says that the government does not have to pay.
There is another possibility which could have been adopted, which is that the minister may not unreasonably withhold moneys. Or, if he does withhold or amend the amount, he must give reasons to the taxing authority as to why he is amending, changing or withholding certain payments in lieu of taxes.
It does not only go to that point; it also goes to the advisory panel which provides certain advice. I will get into that in a bit more detail later.
I want to talk as well about late payment of taxes. Supposing that the government decides through its minister that rather than pay the taxes on the date specified in the tax assessment it will pay on some other date. In that case, if the government decides to make a late payment, it is up to the minister to decide how late it will be—and there could be a dispute on the dates—and he may have to pay a bonus or an interest charge.
Business people know very well that if they are late in the payment of their taxes they are assessed a service charge, interest on the late payment. I believe that the minister should be in exactly the same position and should be obligated to at least give the reasons for which he is withholding the interest charges.
The bill also provides for an advisory panel. This is a very useful mechanism. The advisory panel would give the minister advice on the assessment. If a building that the government owns is fully occupied by the government, then it should pay the full amount. If the government has leased the building to a third party, who is liable? Is it the third party? Is it the government? Who is liable? The bill provides that the advisory panel would advise the minister on these issues.
However, the minister is not obligated to take that advice. He may ignore the advice.
The panel would be comprised of people who understand what this is all about. It would be made up of tax assessors, people who know how to evaluate property for its fair market value, whether buildings or land.
There could be disputes, as there are with tax assessments on real estate. The minister might question the assessed value. He might say that it is too high. There is an appeal process. He may also talk about a variety of other issues when he comes to the appeal. He may talk about ownership and things of that type.
This advisory panel, which acts as a dispute resolution mechanism, may provide some advice to the minister. It may say that the assessment, which the minister says is really too high, is correct. Or, it may tell the taxing authority that their assessment probably is too high. Nevertheless, the minister, regardless of what it is, is not obligated to accept this advice. He may amend it, he may change it or he may use it. It is entirely up to him.
Why is it that we are so concerned about these issues? Why is it that the minister would want to ignore the advice of the panel? Why is it that the minister might not wish to pay taxes, or he might wish to pay late, or he might wish to adjust, or whatever the case may be? He is not obligated. Why is it that he does not want to have the requirement of this parliament to give reasons. He should be required to give reasons to the taxing authorities as to why he would not accept the full assessment of the taxes that he is to pay. If he has the authority to pay he should be obligated to pay if he is operating in an equitable, fair and open basis.
It could be that the minister just simply wants the power to say that he is able to do this and do whatever he jolly well pleases. It is quite possible for him to do that. If we look at some of the arrogance that exists on the front bench that we have seen in the last little while, it could be that.
I happen to know the hon. minister in this connection and I do not believe that is his motivation at all. It could be something else. It could be manipulation. There could be friends in some of these taxing authorities where the money should be paid immediately. However, there should be no question that if there is a late payment the appropriate interest should be paid.
There could be other municipalities or other taxing authorities where the particular management is not necessarily friendly with the minister because they may have voted for a different party rather than the one that is in power. In this case the minister could say that maybe he should not pay the full amount, that he should wait a little while, or that he will reduce the interest rate on this one. There is a possibility of playing favourites here. I happen to know that the minister involved would not do that but the possibility exists.
When we make legislation in the House we should write the legislation in such a way that partisan politics does not become an issue. When it comes to the business of taxing and paying taxes, it should be done in a fair, equitable and transparent manner so that every Canadian is treated the same as every other Canadian. There should be no particular advantages to one group vis-à-vis another group. It should not be possible for a minister to intrude and manipulate the situation to his advantage or the advantage of the political party that he is involved with.
The very same set of arguments also applies to the panel. Why should the minister, having a group of experts that is available to him and providing him with good advice, be in a position to ignore their advice? I think the advisory panel is there as a mechanism, as a protection for Canadian taxpayers so that disputes can be resolved equitably, quickly and in an impartial way. If the minister chooses to ignore the advice of the panel he should be required to give reasons for doing so.
We also need to look at a couple of other things. The first of these are the rights of the taxpayer. What rights do we have as Canadian taxpayers who support the government, who support the programs and who pay for the programs even if they do not support them? What are the rights of the individual taxpayer? The rights of the individual taxpayer are that we should know where our taxes are going, how much our taxes are and the basis for those taxes so that they are equitable and fair and we know exactly what is happening in each of these areas.
It goes beyond that. There are three crown corporations that are for-profit corporations. They include the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the Canada Post Corporation and the Royal Canadian Mint. These are only three Crown corporations out of many more that have somehow been exempted from a requirement to make payments in lieu of taxes. Simply because they are crown corporations they can be exempt. The Business Development Bank of Canada pays taxes because it is listed in schedule IV. For some reason or other these three corporations, CMHC, CPC and the Royal Canadian Mint have been exempted. We do not know why.
It was suggested by the Canadian Federation of Municipalities and by our amendment that these be included, but it was ignored. Why? The National Housing Act was amended last year to allow Canada Mortgage and Housing to pay dividends to its major shareholder, the Government of Canada. Clearly, it would not pay dividends if it did not have a profit. We have here a corporation that uses the services of a municipality which are paid for by taxes. Why should those corporations not be required to make payments in lieu of taxes, just like the other crown corporations?
It is the right of the taxpayer to be protected and that the taxes be equitable, fair and universal for all those who are liable.
There is also a responsibility on the part of the minister for sound management. There have been examples of good sound management in that particular department, and I commend the minister, but that is not the issue here. On this particular issue there has been good management on the part of the department but there are other areas where the department has failed and where, I would suggest, the minister should call into question some of the management practices, in particular the Canada Post Corporation.
The way in which the rural route mail couriers are being administered by that particular organization is scandalous, particularly the way in which the contract process is being operated. Something needs to be done to ensure that the contracting procedure and process is fair and equitable. At the moment it is not.
I now want to move into the area of accountability. The minister is accountable to this parliament and he should be held to account. Parliament should know the reasons why taxes have not been paid, why payments are made in lieu of taxes, why some people are not paying as much, are late or have had their interest payments adjusted. We need to have that information.
We also need transparency. What needs to be hidden? Nothing needs to be hidden. Why should this be some kind of deep secret. It should not be. Why not tell Canadians that the minister is appealing a particular tax assessment? Why should we not know that in his or her opinion it should be reduced? That is legitimate. If members in the House have a question we can appeal to a tax appeal authority. The minister is accountable to parliament.
Finally, there is the business of commitment. We need to know if there is commitment to peace, order and good government in this department? I will again refer to that specific instance with the contracting procedure at Canada Post. It does not promote peace, order and good government because it pits one group against another. The process is not open. It is one sided and, in many ways, discriminates against other people.
If the minister would say that he will be accountable and that he is committed to this, then we would really be able to say that we have moved a long way. It could be done with the amendments we have suggested on the report stage of the bill.
I want to say how significant this is, particularly when I refer to Mr. Desautels, the auditor general, and his comments from yesterday. This was reported this morning in the National Post . He said “If members of parliament are involved in the decision making process”—in this particular instance he is referring to job creation grants, but it applies everywhere—“that blurs the line and makes it harder for them to play their oversight role of government”.
I cannot underline more strongly than the auditor general did, the significance of that statement.
It is in the same way that I want to protect not only the minister but the taxpayers of Canada. I want to tell them that they will be treated fairly and equitably, and that the decisions we make will be transparent. If that happens, the auditor general would not have to give advice like that because we would be committed right from the start.
I suggest that we must decide to play fairly, equitably and honestly. We need to tell our municipalities that we are here to recognize them and respect them.
The principle is the same, whether it is with HRDC grants, EDC grants or loans, or with any other department. The principle is that MPs, including the minister, should recognize that all laws pertaining to individuals and the private sector apply equally to the Government of Canada, its personnel, its agencies and parliament. A commitment to that principle characterizes all Reform MPs and will characterize all Canadian alliance MPs after Saturday's decision. This policy and this commitment I give to all hon. members on my behalf and on my colleagues' behalf.
I recommend to the minister that although he missed the opportunity to protect himself and his successors, he can provide amendments in the next session of parliament to bring about those amendments that will protect him and make sure that it is clear and above-board.
With regard to the three other corporations, CMHC, CPC and the Royal Canadian Mint, the minister could then bring that amendment forward and include them under schedule four. We would then have a fair and equitable treatment of all crown corporations. They would then be obligated to pay taxes to the taxing authority.
While we agree with the bill in principle and support it, and while there are many things about the bill we like, I suggest to the minister that he has not gone as far as he could have gone or should have gone. It would have been in the interests of this parliament and all Canadians to have gone further and accepted some of the amendments that were presented to the House on the occasion of the reporting of the bill.