Madam Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-46, which would implement a bilateral free trade agreement with Panama.
As we do with all free trade legislation, I along with my NDP colleagues have carefully examined the details of this bill. We need to ensure that any free trade agreement we sign is progressive, that it looks closely at the treatment of labour activists and equality for women and minority groups, and that it contains provisions for environmental protection.
Unfortunately, this free trade agreement with Panama falls short on the protection of labour activists. While there are provisions for labour protection, there is no means with which to enforce this part of the treaty. It seems that the provision is there to placate critics without trying to accurately tackle the issue.
This is a real issue in Panama. July saw a massive crackdown on union members and labour leaders in Panama. New legislation was brought forward by the government, which limited the rights of workers to strike and even their freedom of association, including provisions to jail for up to two years any workers taking their protests to the streets.
These are rights that are enshrined in article 23 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and in the declaration of the fundamental principles and rights at work of the International Labour Organization. Yet the Government of Panama seems happy to trample on 60 years of international law.
If this were not bad enough, when the citizens took to the streets to legitimately and democratically highlight their opposition to this legislation, the government reacted violently. More than 100 protesters were injured, some fatally, and more than 300 protesters were jailed, including the leaders of the SUNTRACS and CONATO trade unions.
The government is clearly not committed to the rights of organized labour, and its violent reaction to the protest shows that a toothless labour provision is simply not enough. If this government were serious about the labour protection, then this free trade act would have a real means to enforce the labour provisions. Without it, the provisions are worthless.
When considering this free trade agreement with Panama, we must also look at Panama's tax code. Panama is recognized both by international bodies like the OECD and by other countries as a tax haven. Tax havens allow large corporations and rich individuals in Canada to shelter their income from the government and avoid paying the tax they owe the government.
While thousands of Canadians are struggling to pay their bills, I cannot understand why this government would try to ratify a free trade agreement with a country that is allowing people and corporations to evade paying their taxes. Let us not mince words here. Those people who are avoiding paying these taxes are stealing from the average hard-working Canadian.
This government, which claims to be tough on crime, is happy to have different rules for these high-earning criminals than for the average Canadian. It claims it wants to crack down on tax evaders, but while it talks the talk, it certainly does not walk the walk.
When the government got the names of Canadians illegally sheltering funds in Europe, it offered them a voluntary disclosure program, which is nothing more than a partial tax amnesty. Sure, they had to pay some interest and penalties to the CRA, but these are not people who accidentally filed their taxes incorrectly. These are people who purposely hid money from the government for the explicit reason of avoiding paying taxes. This is not a mistake. It is criminal intent.
If someone steals a TV from your home, the police do not just get them to return the TV and give you ten bucks for your trouble. This is effectively what the government did to these tax evaders. It was an economic slap on the wrist maybe, but certainly it was very lenient punishment. They certainly were not treated like the typical criminal would be.
It is not just that this free trade agreement does not try to put in place a provision to deal with the shelter of income from the government. It is also that the free trade agreement will undoubtedly create additional loopholes, which will be exploited so that even more income is sheltered offshore.
Think of what we could do with the extra tax revenue, which we are not already losing. How can the government tell people that it cannot afford to cut the federal tax from home heating or increase payments to pensioners when it is happy to sign off on a free trade agreement that allows for so many individuals and corporations to avoid paying taxes?
The bill points to an increasingly worrying trend where the government is trying to hollow out the role of the state. It is happy to allow foreign takeovers without really studying the effects on the communities that are affected.
Look at the year-long strike that took place in my great city of Sudbury after the Conservatives approved the sale of Inco to Vale. The government refused to step in and protect the members of USW Local 6500 and the whole community, which also suffered.
When the strike was over, it loaned Vale $1 billion. Now the government is making it easier for corporations and individuals to avoid paying tax by sheltering their money illegally in Panama, and it will then use lower tax revenues as an excuse to cut important state services.
The bill does nothing to support hard-working individuals in Canada or in Panama. In fact it undermines them, in Canada by cutting the federal tax revenue and in Panama by giving the government international credibility on labour issues when it is violently and undemocratically cracking down on union members.
The bill is an insult to anyone who works hard and pays taxes while rich individuals and corporations avoid their responsibilities.
This is why I will not be supporting the bill.