Morneau 'laying down the gauntlet' on corporate tax loopholes
The finance minister says federal government doesn't "want to wait for the next Panama Papers."
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Canada’s finance minister denounced “unfair” tax loopholes on Thursday and put Bay St. on notice that the Liberal government is committed to addressing “blind spots” and exposing shadowy corporate finances to public scrutiny.
“We don’t want to wait for the next Panama Papers to tell us whether or not someone may be trying to hide their income from taxation,” said Bill Morneau, referring to the massive leak of offshore tax haven documents the Toronto Star and the CBC/Radio-Canada revealed last year.
“We’re laying down the gauntlet.”
The federal government will release a discussion paper laying out policy positions in the coming weeks and invited Canada’s business elite to weigh in on how to crack down on tax evasion.
The goal, he said, is not new revenue — it is fairness.
“People have to have confidence in our system. They have confidence that it’s fair for them and their family . . . because at the end of the day, we know that’s a foundation for a healthy and growing economy, and that’s really what we’re after.”
Speaking to a room of 80 people at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, Morneau used his strongest language yet in pledging to close tax loopholes that give Canadians with private companies an unfair advantage.
“When people pay their taxes, they want to know that their neighbour pays roughly the same taxes,” Morneau said. “Right now there are some loopholes in our system that means that that is not necessarily always the case.
“When people see that the tax system is stacked against them, they can get frustrated. We need to make sure that everyone, especially including the middle class, the large group of people who don’t have access to these sort of planning methodologies, feel that the system is working for them.”
A review of the tax system, already underway, has raised, a number of issues around tax planning strategies by a growing number of people using private corporations, said Morneau.
The secrecy afforded to private corporations is a central concern in the fight against tax unfairness, he said, because it allows some to “gain an unfair tax advantage.”
“You don’t want people to be shielding money inside the private corporation at the private corporation tax rate with no long-term intent of actually making investments into the business; it’s just a way of shielding their gains from tax,” he said.
The corporate veil conceals not only money, but the identity of those hiding it. Morneau admitted that the government isn’t always able to know the incomes of Canadians — an “important blind spot.”
“One of the things we need to look at is where people are actually earning their income . . . . If it’s in offshore accounts, we can’t really tell ourselves that we know that they’re paying the fair share.”
That blind spot was the focus of a Torstar investigation in January that detailed how Canadian corporations are able to exploit the country’s tax system by hiding transactions behind corporate veils — a culture of corporate secrecy that remains entrenched across the country.
The identity of the real owners of companies — called “beneficial owners” — is often impossible to determine in Canada for the public, auditors, accountants or law enforcement.
The Torstar investigation detailed how Canada’s secretive corporate registration model is even luring international tax evaders, who use Canada to make illicit transactions appear legitimate — a process dubbed “snow washing.”
“We need to be able to improve the availability of what’s called beneficial ownership information. We need to know who owns the companies that are here at home. That’s critical because . . . it ensures law enforcement and tax authorities have timely access to this information to combat money laundering . . . terrorist financing, and finally tax avoidance,” Morneau said.
Richard Leblanc, a leading corporate governance expert and professor at Harvard and York universities, lauded Morneau’s commitment to action.
“Right now, Canada has a reputation for secrecy and concealment, not transparency and accountability,” he said. “There is no justified reason for concealing the beneficial owners of Canadian companies. These owners should be fully accessible, online, by the police, CRA and the media.”
“These blind spots should be plugged. There should be nowhere for organized crime, terrorists and money launderers to hide,” said Leblanc.
James Cohen, executive director of Transparency International Canada was more cautious, calling on the government to table “concrete proposals.”
“We look forward to concrete proposals in the coming weeks to meet commitments made by Canada at the G20 in 2014. We expect the minister to show commitment and leadership with the provinces in implementing a public registry of beneficial ownership, one which is already in place in the U.K.,” Cohen said.
Britain launched a public registry of beneficial owners last year that is now considered a global model of corporate openness.
When asked last November whether Canada would follow with a similar registry, Morneau told the Star, “We’re absolutely in favour of knowing who is registering companies, what their goals are and what taxes they should be paying in our country, and that they’re not in any way avoiding taxes somewhere else through their registry here.”
The government later committed to action on the issue in the federal budget.
Morneau is now committing the government to reforming the country’s corporate registration system.
“If we think we can sustain a market-based democracy where half the population feels it isn’t working for them, we need to think hard about that,” he said.
One of the challenges is jurisdictional.
Only about 10 per cent of corporations in Canada are registered federally. The rest are registered provincially through 10 different bureaucracies.
Morneau has told Torstar he has been in discussion with the provinces since last year.
On Thursday, he said co-ordinated action is required with the provinces.
“The provinces are stepping forward and working with us,” he said.