Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise on behalf of the constituents of Newton—North Delta to participate in the third reading and report stage debate on Bill S-17, the tax conventions implementation act, 2004.
This bill implements income tax treaties with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Gabon and Oman. Canadian did not previously have tax treaties with any of these states. It also ratifies a new treaty with Ireland. These treaties set out a framework for taxation on investment income flowing between Canada and other countries. They provide mechanisms to avoid double taxation and prevent any kind of tax evasion.
Let us look into the background. Over the past several years, Canada has negotiated tax treaties with 83 countries. These agreements deal with problems that arise when residents of one nation earn income in another country. They are based on the model double taxation convention prepared by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Treaties serve to avoid double taxation in situations in which a taxpayer could be taxed twice, once by the country in which the income arises, the source country, and once by the country where the taxpayer resides, the residence country. The treaties help to reduce excessive withholding taxes on certain types of income, such as investment income and royalties.
Treaties also serve to establish agreed-to levels of activities in which taxpayers can engage in the treaty country before becoming subject to taxation. Treaties must provide for the exchange of information and also to eliminate taxes in situations where treaty partners agree should have favourable tax treatment. Tax treaties cannot take effect unless Parliament assesses and passes legislation to give them precedence over the Income Tax Act.
Legislation to ratify tax treaties does not require a notice of ways and means and, therefore, may be introduced in the Senate, as was the case with this bill.
One of the important elements that we should look at before signing any kind of treaty with any country is respect for Canadian values among which the respect for human rights is paramount. While tax treaties are generally beneficial to Canadians, I am somewhat concerned about the four countries involved in the treaties this bill would ratify.
Specifically, I am concerned about the human rights records of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Gabon and Oman. I have visited some of these countries already and I have firsthand experience in some of these situations. Canada must ensure that the countries we have tax treaties with recognize the importance of human rights. It must be more than a perfunctory recognition. It must be a real and cognizant recognition.
The U.S. state department's 2004 human rights report released just two weeks ago gives all four of the countries we are agreeing to have tax treaties with failing grades. According to the report, the Armenian government's human rights record remains very poor as its security forces beat pre-trial detainees and its impugnity remains a problem. As well, there were instances of arbitrary arrest and detentions.
For Azerbaijan, the government's human rights record also remains poor, and it continues to commit numerous abuses, including: restricting the right of citizens to peacefully change their government democratically; police torture and beat persons in custody; and use excessive force to extract confessions. The government continues to restrict freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.
According to the same report, the Government of Oman also has serious human rights problems. Citizens do not have the right to change their government democratically. The government restricts freedom of speech and freedom of the press, assembly and religion. Despite legislated equality, discrimination against women remains a problem and foreign workers in private firms have been placed in situations amounting to forced labour.
Finally, according to the report, the Gabon is given a poor grade, as the government continues to limit the ability of citizens to change their government democratically, security forces sometimes beat and torture prisoners and detainees, and arbitrary arrests and detentions are ongoing problems. The government also continues to restrict freedom of the press and movement. Violence and social discrimination against women and non-citizen Africans continue to be problems. Forced labour, child labour and trafficking, particularly in children, also remain serious problems.
In general, none of these countries share Canada's respect for human rights. Canadians have a right to ask what their government is doing to ensure that the human rights record of the foreign signatory is improved. I remember when we as parliamentarians travelled to other countries, along with ministers and others, we always emphasized the Canadian values that we respect: the protection of human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but how would we sign those agreements or treaties when the records of those countries are not as good?
While the government has been making progress on signing new tax treaties, it has failed miserably at renegotiating previous treaties that have a far greater impact on the welfare of Canadians.
A case in point is our tax treaty with the United States. Five years ago the Prime Minister, when he was finance minister, reached an agreement in principle with his U.S. counterparts. Since then little has happened, with the last meeting occurring in 2001, despite the Prime Minister claiming that the agreement was of great consequence to Canadians. The people of Canada want the dithering to stop.
Last summer, when Japan and the U.S. reached an agreement to renegotiate their tax treaty, the U.S. ambassador to Japan praised the treaty as “one more symbol of the cooperation, trust and true friendship that exists between our two countries”. If that is what it takes to get a tax treaty done, it is little wonder the Liberals have failed to secure a deal.
Under the last Liberal prime minister, relations with the U.S. reached an all time low and they are getting no better under the current resident of 24 Sussex Drive. The bungling of the missile defence system, the closure of the border to Canadian beef and the never-ending softwood lumber dispute are evidence of where our relationship stands with our closest neighbour and largest trading partner.
Eight-seven per cent of our trade is with the United States and the bottleneck in our relationship continues to exist. It is detrimental to Canadians in general as well as our businesses. If the U.S. president waits for 10 days to return our Prime Minister's phone call, there is obviously little hope of getting a tax treaty done.
It is also important for the federal government to finally renegotiate our tax treaties for the countries that serve as tax havens for Canadian companies. Canadians will recall how the Prime Minister took advantage of our agreement with the Bahamas, registering his shipping fleet there and saving millions of dollars in Canadian taxes.
The country's five largest banks are now getting in on the action, probably following the Prime Minister's example, and saving billions of dollars in taxes. According to one report, CIBC alone in 2003 saved $600 million in Canadian taxes by using tax havens. This is money that we could have used for health care, education, tax cuts and many other things.
The Liberals, however, do not have the political will nor the backbone to close these loopholes in tax treaties and these tax havens.
Thanks to our former prime minister, Jean Chrétien, who visited one of the world's most repressive countries to secure an agreement with the Turkmenistan government for rights to explore the disputed Serdar oil field in the Caspian Sea, our discussion of the tax treaty with Azerbaijan is almost pointless. In protest of the deal negotiated by Chrétien, the Azeri national assembly has refused to pass a law ratifying our tax treaty agreed to last September.
The former prime minister may be officially retired from politics but he certainly is not done making headlines and harming Canadian interests abroad, whether it is his attempt to stop the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship fiasco or, in this case, harming our relations with foreign states.
The Conservative Party of Canada supports the negotiation of tax treaties with foreign states. Such treaties are in the best interest of the Canadian people. They eliminate the double taxation, because, heaven knows, Canadians already pay enough in taxes, and promote investment and growth.
However I am concerned about the human rights records of some of the countries with which we are forming agreements. We should not allow economics to cloud our judgment of what is right and what is wrong and all four of these countries have been found to have a poor respect for the rights of their people.
Sometimes the Liberal government has given precedence to trade over anything else to some countries with dismal human rights records. The Liberals have been completely ignoring human rights record in favour of promoting trade and giving preferential treatment to those states.
Canadian interests may be best served if the government makes a priority of finally concluding renegotiations of our tax treaty with the United States which have dragged on for five years despite the Prime Minister's acknowledgement in 2000 that this deal was of great importance to Canada.
I think we should look closer to home. We should look at our volume of trade with our neighbouring country. I think the treaty with the U.S. should have been given precedence over any other treaty. If the Prime Minister himself confessed in 2000 that this would have serious consequence for Canadians, where is that treaty, I ask the Liberals across the floor? Where is that treaty with the United States which the Prime Minister, when he was finance minister in 2000, said would have a serious consequence for Canadians? Five years have passed. Where is the progress? Why has the government been sitting on its hands? Why is the government sleeping at the wheel and not signing the treaty with our largest trading partner, the United States of America?
The government has for far too long put off renegotiations on tax treaties that serve as tax havens for Canadian companies. Why is the government not closing those loopholes? It might be because they serve its self-interest in one way or the other.
The federal treasury cannot afford this kind of dithering. The government must stop dithering and act swiftly on the issues that are of particular importance to Canadians and to our relationship with our largest trading partner.
I will be voting in support of the bill but I would ask the government to wake up and not sleep at the wheel.