Madam Speaker, I am pleased to join in this debate on Bill C-303, which proposes to amend the Income Tax Act to provide a tax deduction for automobile expenses that forestry workers incur when they travel to work sites that are far from their homes.
The proposed bill would cover daily out of pocket expenses for operating a motor vehicle. Examples of such costs are maintenance, gasoline and insurance. It would also cover interest charges on money borrowed to acquire a vehicle. It would also include depreciation costs.
I think the initiative is a worthy one but fraught with all kinds of problems. I would like to go over some of those problems.
Certainly I would not take away from any of the comments made about forestry workers by my colleague who just spoke. Forestry workers are the backbone of the forestry sector and forestry is a sector that contributes significantly to our economy. In 2002 alone, forestry exports contributed more than $32 billion to our economy and our trade surplus. Today more than 350,000 hard-working Canadians are directly employed in this sector.
The core of the bill would give a special package of tax benefits to a narrow group of employees. It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we uphold the basic principles of fairness and even-handedness in public policy matters and in taxation matters.
Travelling in the forestry business is an expensive part of the job. There is just no getting around it. Providing tax relief on this type of isolated basis certainly is problematic. Let me raise some of the concerns about this approach.
We know that other groups of employees incur exactly the same kinds of commuting costs as forestry workers. People who work in construction or in the oil and gas sector are obvious examples. I certainly have some experience from working in the oil industry in terms of travelling back and forth to work. These workers travel huge distances, often up to seven and eight hours' worth, to work sites. I am sure there many more examples of people who have to travel as part of their job description.
We know that all employees, no matter where they work, incur some form of mandatory employment related expenses. Employment expenses can vary in their nature and in their amounts. There seems to be no reason that one group would be more deserving than any of the others in access to an employment expense deduction.
The cost of getting to and from work is one of a range of costs that employees incur. Like virtually all employment related expenses, there is no specific income tax deduction. Instead, there is a general tax recognition by way of the basic exemption. The basic exemption is one that applies to all employees and indeed all taxpayers.
Prior to 1988, there was a $500 deduction for employment expenses. The general deduction recognizes that all employees incur some work related expenses. The employment expense deduction was integrated into the basic exemption. The basic exemption has steadily increased since 1988 and now stands at just slightly over $8,000.
The member for Scarborough—Rouge River proposed that the general $500 deduction be reintroduced as a way of recognizing the broad array of potential employment expenses. However, this would cost approximately $1.3 billion per year in revenue foregone in the tax system.
Once we have opened up the door to this type of employment expense, in fairness we would also have to recognize volunteers and their expenses. Statistics Canada reports that there were 6.5 million volunteers in Canada in the year 2000. Giving each one of them a $500 tax credit would cost $3.25 billion in lost tax revenue.
The bill tries to address an obvious problem facing the forestry industry. However, it does not address the root of the problem: this government's inability to properly manage its books and to resolve trade disputes with the United States. The softwood lumber issue has caused dislocation, unemployment and problems, especially in our rural communities. It needs to be resolved. It needs to be resolved at the highest level.
I would suggest that the other thing we should consider here is the whole employment insurance program. Not only does the employment insurance program consistently overtax people in the forest industry, but when they are laid off due to softwood taxation, tariffs and so on, it sometimes takes months for them to get their EI cheques.
I believe we have to address this issue globally. It means broadly based tax relief for all Canadians who are looking for some help. We want to specifically help people in their personal income taxes, allowing them to reduce the amount of taxes paid. We need to stop the gouging in the EI system. We need to ensure that the money goes to the people who need it in a way that helps them out properly.
In closing, let me say that due to the concerns I have raised, I will not be supporting this private member's bill.