Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in this opposition day motion by the Bloc Québécois. I have had an opportunity to listen to the debate and representations from all the parties. We have covered a lot of ground. We have had some interesting discussions about ideology and a range of matters that probably stretch way beyond the specifics of the motion.
While I understand that having latitude in debate is a good thing, I was looking at Marleau and Montpetit to see that the issue of relevance was basically framed in the context that there is very little time in the House to waste. We have important work to do and it is important that all hon. members try to stay focused on the matter before us, which includes debate on amendments. Even if there is an amendment, the subsequent debate should be on the specifics of the amendment rather than the whole motion. It is an important principle and I hope that members will take an opportunity to consult our Standing Orders and Marleau and Montpetit about how to get down to the issues before the House.
It is extremely important for members to have an opportunity to hear the substantive reasons for and against a certain motion before the House simply because very few members get an opportunity to speak to this or ask a question. Members are at committees or busy at meetings. This morning I met with the Canadian Real Estate Association and with the International Association of Fire Fighters for a few minutes each on issues important to them, but I wanted to follow the debate. I was really surprised at some of the arguments. I think that creative people could argue this one almost either way with a straight face and conviction.
First I will remind members of the motion to which we are speaking. It is a Bloc Québécois opposition day motion that reads:
That, in the opinion of the House, the government should negotiate in good faith with the Government of Quebec to resolve the dispute dating back over ten years regarding the harmonization of the QST with the GST in the early 1990s and agree to provide $2.6 billion in compensation to Quebec for this harmonization, and that Quebec continue to administer these harmonized taxes.
One really must look at the motion to understand that there are several elements at play here. The first element is the reference to good faith. I do not think anybody would disagree that fairness and good faith are mandatory elements if the federal government and the provinces are to make important agreements between them. If there should be any indication whatsoever that there is not good faith, the results can probably be predicted.
I must admit that I was a little concerned that the Conservative Minister of Public Works and Government Services seemed to spend a little bit of time attacking the other parties rather than addressing the issue. I know the minister is on the record saying that the government will not support this motion. It will not support the motion because it does not believe that the elements of the harmonization have been met by Quebec. Things will need to change or there is no compensation. We can know from the government that it is pretty black and white.
Having said that, I think it is fair to say that the other two opposition parties will be supporting the motion before the House right now for a fairly simple reason. It is an important objective to achieving the benefits of harmonization of a sales tax. It is in the best interests of businesses, of consumers and of the provinces because it provides administrative simplicity as well as the opportunity to have a more efficient situation with regard to the cost of doing business in Quebec or in any other province. A harmonized base in a tax credit system makes things a little cheaper for the consumer, notwithstanding that there may be a few other items added in when one harmonizes the basis on which a harmonized tax is applied.
There are some disputed items here that go back over 10 years. Quebec was one of the first provinces to come into a quasi-harmonization agreement back in the 1990s. However, because this was back in the 1990s, members will probably need to look back at a little bit of the history. If I have some time, I might even refer to some of the history.
The other item is to provide this $2.6 billion of compensation. Members will probably need to be assured that they understand the terms and conditions under which compensation is payable, whether those terms and conditions have been met and, if not, whether they are substantive enough that discussions on compensation cannot still move forward to some extent and maybe even fully if the items were considered not to be material in terms of achieving the objectives of harmonizing the tax.
Finally, the motion deals with who collects the tax. The motion calls for the Province of Quebec to continue to administer the harmonized taxes. There is precedence in Quebec now for the collection of tax. Quebec collects its own income taxes, whereas for the Province of Ontario and, I think, all the other provinces, the federal government does collect both the provincial and the federal taxes. Therefore, there is some precedence with regard to the collection.
However, who collects the taxes, I would argue, really does not matter as long as the appropriate amount of taxes are collected and the amounts are distributed to the jurisdictions to which they belong in an efficient fashion. I do not see that as a major item.
I read over the motion because what is in the motion defines the boundaries of our discussion. To deal with ideology at this point probably is not as respectful to the House as maybe we should be.
As I indicated, the Liberals will be supporting the motion. There are, however, some points to be made that I need to put into context.
Sales tax harmonization, conceptually, is something that we support. There is very good evidence for a harmonized tax. Obviously there are efficiencies having one system versus two. By having a common tax base, it means that people who are responsible for these things do not need to determine how much to tax this one and that one. There are so many interesting examples of the exceptions to the rule that it makes it very complicated and businesses do not have a lot of time to administer their business. They should be encouraged to do things that are promoting the growth of their business, to improve sales, to be profitable and to create jobs. Those are the things we want to encourage.
Although the issue that has been brought before the House today is worthy of moving forward, there is no question in my mind that we need to deal with the current situation in Canada, the economic crisis, by ensuring the economic stimulus that Parliament approved in the last budget gets out in a timely manner. The implications of failing to do that in terms of a stimulative strategy to the economy would be very tragic for the country in terms of the depth of the recession, the accumulation of debt and the depth of a deficit and the loss of jobs. I think of the young people who are leaving the education phase of their lives and going out to find jobs only to find that they are now competing for entry level jobs with people who have five to ten years' experience. It is a real problem which is why we need to be successful on the stimulative side.
Although this matter is important, it is too bad it has to come before Parliament and take up Parliament's time. It should happen automatically. A dialogue should be opened up between the Province of Quebec and the Government of Canada to resolve the issues that are outstanding and to discuss the $2.6 billion compensation.
I was looking back at some of the recent statements by the Minister of Finance to try to understand a little more about why we had not had a resolution of this. On March 30, not too long ago, the finance minister told Canwest News:
Quebec chose to operate its own sales tax system and not to adopt a harmonized system with the Government of Canada. That was a decision made by Quebec and that is their choice....You can't say I'm not going to harmonize my sales tax, I'm not going to adopt federal law but I want transition funding for something I'm not doing.
The minister was pretty clear in his statements. It sounds to me, to the extent that there are differences in the deal the Ontario and the Atlantic provinces have in terms of harmonizing the taxes, that the finance minister has closed the door and said that there will be no discussions, that these are the rules of the game and that is the way it will be.
That is pretty clear, and the Conservatives have indicated they will oppose the motion.
On the same day, the Minister of Public Works said in the House:
Mr. Speaker, at a given point, unlike Ontario, Quebec did not pass the federal harmonized sales tax legislation. That is the point. We need to stop clouding the issue. Quebec also did not sign a comprehensive integrated tax coordination agreement. That is a fact.
Quebec's sales tax and the GST are still separate, and Quebec has chosen to administer them. That is why there are compensation payments. The member should stop deliberately muddying the waters to create division.
At that point I was pretty convinced this would not happen. When I saw the motion come before us, I was not sure whether this was a serious attempt to maybe make a resolution here.
The finance critic for the Liberal Party addressed the House earlier. He gave some very encouraging words about not why this should not happen, but why it should. I subscribe to the philosophy of “Please don't tell me why I can't; tell me how I can”, taking into account some of the historic and precedent conditions that already exist between the Government of Canada and the province of Quebec.
The finance minister appears to have changed his tune a bit, and that was very encouraging. On April 21, in the House, he said:
The plain fact, Mr. Speaker, is the Government of Quebec is collecting the GST for the Government of Canada and is being paid $130 million a year to do that job.
This is about economic growth in Canada. That is why New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and now the province of Ontario have all negotiated with the federal government and arrived at a harmonized tax system.
This is in the best interest of people who work in Quebec. That is why I look forward to continuing discussions with the Government of Quebec.
In a matter of three weeks, the finance minister went from “no way” to “we need discussions”. Therefore, we have already achieved something in terms of raising the issue and pointing out that there are some arguments.
As I indicated, the current economic challenge that we face is our priority, but this is a point that can be dealt with and should be dealt with, as the lead speaker said, equity and tax justice. That is what we are talking about.
The second point I want to make is we are pleased that the Government of Quebec has indicated it will consider eliminating the remaining obstacles to full harmonization, including not levying the QST on top of the GST.
This matter has been evolving. There have been some discussions. It appears there is some openness on behalf of the Minister of Finance, which I think is encouraging, and there has been some openness to resolve those obstacles with regard to the province of Quebec. This tells me there is an opportunity here for discussions, consultations and resolution of the outstanding items.
Members might want to muse about the obstacles and where they stand.
The whole situation of harmonization has to do with putting two taxes into one. Today we still have two taxes, the Quebec sales tax and the GST. Literally there is no harmonization.
One Bloc member indicated that Canada could have two taxes and still achieve harmonization. An argument could be made that having two taxes would not really be a major difference as long as the reconciliation items between the two taxes would not be onerous or maybe mitigate the benefits that could flow from harmonizing the taxes.
The second item has to do with applying the difference on the basis of which taxes are applied. This could cause some problems. It could cause businesses some grief. I have a feeling that some reconciliation could happen. The province of Ontario has made some exemptions to accommodate the difference between the GST and the PST.
The tax credit is an interesting aspect to the extent that there is a GST tax credit. Tax credits available through the Quebec government do not merit. There are some benefits that would accrue not only to businesses, because of the flow-through nature of the GST tax credit, but to consumers as well.
The next item deals with who would collect the tax. I argued earlier that whether it is the Government of Quebec or the Government of Canada that collects the harmonized tax should not matter all that much. It is not a fatal flaw in the harmonization scheme as long as the mechanism provides that the moneys owing on the taxes are properly remitted to a jurisdiction and that the distribution or division of those funds is in accordance with the agreement.
Finally, is the issue of a tax on a tax, where the QST is applied against GST paid goods. We can deal with this problem. Depending on the compensation, and I do not know the full details of the mechanics or the scope or the latitude, that is also resolvable.
If these are the items to be reconciled, then I do not see them as major. These are relatively minor points that could be resolved through discussions between the province of Quebec and the Government of Canada.
I am encouraged by the shifting in position of the Minister of Finance on this matter. The finance minister made some assertions that harmonization was a very good economic policy and that it represented a massive tax cut that would promote job creation and investment in the province of Ontario. It should also do the same for the province of Quebec.
The motion is worthy of discussion. I am sorry the Conservatives have decided not to support it. When there are disagreements in interprovincial relations, we have the tools and the will to discuss those disagreements and resolve them. I consider this matter to be somewhat of a test case. Where is the good faith? Where is the equity? Where is the tax justice?
I want to reiterate that the Liberal Party is concerned about the challenges we face with respect to dealing with the economic crisis. We want to eliminate those obstacles. We will support the motion. We want discussions to be held to eliminate those obstacles and to ensure we get the greatest possible benefits out of the harmonization of both the Quebec and federal sales taxes.