Mr. Speaker, if any of my law faculty colleagues from long ago are watching right now, they will probably be sniggering because they will remember that tax law was not my favourite field. I would add that it was not the favourite field of many law students.
However, it is probably the subject that affects people's everyday lives the most. People always talk about the long arm of the government and how it finds all kinds of ways, each more imaginative than the next, to reach in and take what we earn with the sweat of our brow. Sometimes it does that under what is called the Income Tax Act. At other times it does so by means of hidden taxes, which are highly valued by the Conservatives, with charges levied on all kinds of things.
We pay our share every day and our money flows in many ways into the government's coffers. Many people will obviously wonder why I am rising to discuss Bill C-48. I am doing so because it has an impact on everyone's life. It has an impact on the lives of the people in my riding, Gatineau. That is as true for small businesses as it is for big businesses, but it is also true for individuals. They pay every day through the GST, and barely a month ago they did through their income tax returns, so this is not the easiest subject.
Earlier I flipped through the act and thought back on marvellous memories of my time at the law faculty and on the Income Tax Act, just from looking at a few sections of the act. I wondered why legislators were incapable of coming up with anything simpler.
I was listening to the member on the other side of the House who spoke before me. Several questions were put to her, all asking the same thing: why are we making technical amendments in 2013 that should have been in place since 2001? Let us get something straight. This is technical, but Bill C-48 is already in force by means of comfort letters.
People must understand that, from the moment the mean taxman decides that something must be done, it is done, even if it is not yet included in the Income Tax Act, the Excise Tax Act, the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act, the First Nations Goods and Services Tax Act or related legislation. From the moment a comfort letter is signed, the government takes that money from our pockets. This will therefore make little change to people's lives, but it will be much easier to access because it will finally be in the act. Comfort letters are all well and good, and they say what they say, but they are not always clear.
For individuals, our tax system is based on voluntary assessment. In other words, we rely on average Canadians to file their tax return by April 30. If they are lucky, and Revenue Canada does not ask them to produce various documents, they can use the short form. In fact, it is not over yet. Even for people with some training in taxation, it is not very straightforward.
As the Auditor General said, this is not like other bills, where we have seen three versions die on the order paper as a result of an election or prorogation forced by the Conservative government, whose agenda disappeared as if by magic. In this case, the work just was not done. The work was also not done by the Liberals, since the previous legislation dates back to 2001. Auditors general have been calling on the legislators of the House for ages to do something about this more quickly.
In this way, the public could immediately see the changes to the legislation.
In my opinion, the Conservative response to this matter does not stand up. The legislation has not had previous incarnations, nor has it taken a great deal of time, nor is it the opposition’s fault. That is absolutely not the case.
It has taken them this long to produce Bill C-48 and finally listen to what the Auditor General was telling them. What she was telling them was rather serious and blunt. She noted that there were more than 400 technical amendments, and there are barely 200 in Bill C-48.
In her fall 2009 report she said:
No income tax technical bill has been passed since 2001. Although the government has said [as quick as the devil] that an annual technical bill of routine housekeeping amendments to the Act is desirable, this has not happened. As a result, the Department of Finance Canada has a backlog of at least 400 technical amendments that have not been enacted, including 250 “comfort letters” dating back to 1998, recommending changes that have not been legislated.
If proposed technical changes are not tabled regularly, the volume of amendments becomes difficult for taxpayers, tax practitioners, and parliamentarians to absorb when they are grouped into a large package.
This is true, whether you are a New Democrat, a Liberal, the sole member of the Green Party or one of the few from the Bloc Québécois. This is true for everyone, including the Conservatives.
In the 1991 Report of the Auditor General, chapter 2, the Auditor General expressed some concerns that income tax comfort letters were not announced publicly. We are talking about chapter 2 of the Auditor General's report from 1991. In response, the Department of Finance Canada stated that:
…the government intends to release a package of income tax technical amendments on an annual basis, so that taxpayers will not be subject to more lengthy waiting periods as in the past before amendments are released to the public.
Comfort letters have since been regularly released to the public. However, in the past 18 years, very few technical bills have been introduced and passed. Only four of the bills relating to income tax have been passed.
A few sentences in my colleague's speech caught my attention. I found them surprising because it seemed to me that I had heard them yesterday as well. It is important to understand that all these bills are subject to a time allocation motion, be it Bill C-48 today, Bill C-54 last night or Bill C-49, which is to come and will not be spared either.
Introducing a time allocation motion for Bill C-48 seems particularly outrageous, especially when the members opposite do it ad nauseam, parroting the lines written and produced for them by the office on the third floor.
They are trying to tell us that this has been before the House for 200 days. Yet, Bill C-54 was also in the House for 200 days, as was Bill C-48, and Bill C-49 probably will be, as well.
With its majority, the government can advance its agenda as it pleases. Perhaps we are moving at a snail's pace because the government does not really know where it is going. It improvises a little and all of a sudden it realizes that the session may end and that it will leave a lot of things unfinished. That is why it is speeding everything up.
I hear people say we are repeating ourselves, but that is not the case. The message the people of Gatineau want me to send the Conservative government, particularly on Bill C-48, is that they are fed up with provisions so inaccessible and incomprehensible to the average person that everyone would like us to change those aspects.
When I got to page 13 of the Income Tax Act, I had covered only three sections, and I was already getting fed up.
Yet I was a lawyer for 30 years. I studied tax law. I was elected as a member in 2004. I have analyzed many budgets, and I have seen the Income Tax Act in all its forms, as a member of both the government and the official opposition. I was not born yesterday, but this can be hard to grasp even for someone like me.
Small businesses also point out a problem I regularly hear about in my riding of Gatineau. For a small business required to complete all the forms, the disproportionate amount of red tape is good only for the numbers expert industry.
When members of the middle class or less privileged individuals want to do the right thing and pay their taxes, but do not really know how the system works, they have to go see an expert to be sure they make no mistakes. Few people like to make mistakes when it comes to taxes. However, some people manage to divert a large portion of what they owe in taxes even though they make millions of dollars. Authorities often go after lower-income individuals and treat them like criminals even though some people are forced to make arrangements with the Canada Revenue Agency, Revenu Québec or other organizations simply because everyday life is hard for them.
We get these kinds of messages in our ridings. True, we will vote for the bill, but the Conservatives tell us to shut our traps the moment we agree with them. We are no longer entitled to speak. I do not have the right to tell the House what the people of my riding would like to get from their politicians, and I was elected by 62% of the electorate, not 39% like the Conservative government. There are lessons to be learned from each of our ridings. That is what democracy means. It means electing 308 members of different political philosophies. Gatineau may not have the same problem as certain ridings in Alberta, British Columbia or the Atlantic provinces. That is what makes it possible for us to improve the situation together.
Voting in favour of a bill is not necessarily the same thing as giving the government carte blanche or saying that overall the bill is amazing. Sometimes, the government would do well to listen to us and follow the interpretation, which it does not often do. This is unfortunate, but there is a reason why it sticks to the script, like a racehorse running straight for the finish line. The Conservatives’ problem is that they often hit a wall because they fail to listen to what people were saying along the way. That is regrettable, but the message they are sending to all of our constituents is that their opinion does not matter in the least.
Yet if there is one issue that affects all Canadians, regardless of where they live, surely it is taxation. My grandmother always said that in certain areas of life, things should be the same for everyone. I am sure that she would qualify that statement, since some people are good at avoiding certain things. She used to say that some things were unavoidable, like death and taxes. She was right up to a point, although she would surely be turning in her grave at all of the tax avoidance measures that abound today.
While I am very pleased to see that Bill C-48 attempts to address certain problems, I am not fooled either. The Minister of Justice argues that by amending and toughening up certain laws, the problems of all crime victims will be resolved. That is not true. If the government fails to put more police officers on the highways and to increase funding for psychological support services, then it will not accomplish anything. The same holds true for tax avoidance.
If there are not enough agents to properly investigate cases of tax avoidance, or better still, of tax evasion, we will hit another wall.
Again, this is a problem that the Conservatives have. They have an extremely narrow vision of how to get from point A to point B. They are incapable of appreciating that in order to get to point B and the desired outcome, they might have to make a small detour. But the Conservatives just do not do certain things, like admitting they were wrong or that they made a mistake. According to an old saying, a fault confessed is half redressed. They have a hard time with that and again, that is unfortunate.
Bill C-48 is a sound piece of legislation, but it does resolve everything. Had we not had to contend with this time allocation motion, we would have been able to hear a lot more from my colleagues, and maybe even from the Conservatives.
I listened to some of the speeches, and it was interesting to see what it is about this bill that makes some Conservatives react. Once they had dispensed with “we are the best, the nicest, the cleverest” or what have you, in the final 30 seconds, they tied it to what was happening in their riding. It was beneficial for all members of the House.
We can all learn from one another. I learn something from my colleagues who represent more rural regions. They in turn learn about what makes people in urban areas tick. Of course, there are different kinds of urban areas. There are large cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver and cities like Gatineau, which is the fourth-largest municipality in Quebec. Gatineau’s problems are different because it is located right on the Ontario border. By talking to one another, it is possible to find real solutions.
When I served in Parliament from 2004 to 2006, I chaired the women’s caucus. Back then, my favourite expression was gender-based analysis, or GBA.
I would tell my male colleagues that GBA stood for gender-based analysis, not Game Boy Advance. When a bill was being drafted, we ensured that all of the facts were taken into account. We were not just concerned about women.
The best example I can give you is young people who drop out of school. If the facts show that young boys are the ones who drop out of school and a policy is needed to address that situation, then young boys will be the focus of that policy. That logic will dictate our actions.
We accomplish things by talking to one another, by discussing matters and especially by listening and by being willing to admit that sometimes ours is not the absolute truth. However, this government is absolutely incapable of understanding that someone other than the PMO may have some sound ideas or be right. Just imagine having to admit that the NDP had a sound idea. The government thinks the sky would fall and something terrible would happen if it admitted that. How utterly ridiculous and how out of touch with the public.
When I weigh everything, I tell myself that maybe this is what the Conservatives really want in the final analysis. All this really does is leave the public fed up. And what happens when people are fed up? The Conservatives are gambling on two possible outcomes: either that people will come out in force and vote them out of office, which I am hoping will be the case because people no longer want to have anything to do with them, or that people will stay home because they are sick and tired of the whole process. The Conservatives are gambling that the second scenario will play out.
I think people have to realize that while they may not be interested in politics, something like Bill C-48 affects their day-to-day lives, starting with taxation.
Just think about the tax people pay every day on all kinds of things. If they were to calculate how much tax they pay throughout the year, not just income tax, but tax on items purchased at the corner store, at the grocery store, at the drugstore or elsewhere, they would realize that the government is truly omnipresent and that perhaps they should pay attention to politics.
I will be voting in favour of the bill, but it is not an end in itself.