Mr. Speaker, it is always an honour to rise in this place, even during difficult times such as today when it is with somewhat of a heavy heart one rises after the tributes we heard on the terrible tragedy in Saskatchewan.
It is also sometimes difficult to rise in trying times such as these when so much is at stake for the future of our country, even as we grapple with the ongoing crisis over the Trans Mountain expansion and the implications that a failure of that project would have for all future projects in Canada.
This budget implementation act necessarily brings us back to the budget that it implements. The bottom line of any budget, and really the first thing that anyone wants to know about a budget, is whether it is going to be a surplus budget or a deficit budget. Any analysis, criticism, or commentary has to take place in the context of the size and scope of any surplus or deficit. All the choices of inclusion or omission from a budget have to be viewed through that lens.
In the case of a deficit, it is customary to address the question of when the budget will return to surplus. I say this is customary because indeed it is. In fact, all 13 provincial and territorial governments either have a balanced budget or have a specific timeline or projection for when their budget will be balanced, and it is contained in their budget.
The finance minister is currently running a significant deficit, and neither the budget nor this implementation act make any mention of the means or timing of a return to balance. I raised this with the minister when he appeared before the finance committee last month. I asked him why he is the only finance minister in Canada who has no plan for a balanced budget, and why he did not even address the issue in a 400-page budget document. He said, “No matter how many times the Conservative members ask us to follow the playbook of the previous Conservative government, we won't do it.” I may disagree with the minister on the point of whether or not he should follow the Conservative playbook, but at this point I think most Canadians would settle for this government merely following its own playbook.
On page 12 of the 2015 Liberal platform, its playbook, it reads:
We will run modest short-term deficits of less than $10 billion in each of the next two fiscal years to fund historic investments in infrastructure....
After the next two fiscal years, the deficit will decline and our investment plan will return Canada to a balanced budget in 2019.
On page 72 under the fiscal plan and costing chapter it reiterates, “We will run modest deficits for three years so that we can invest in growth for the middle class and credibly offer a plan to balance the budget in 2019.” Later on in the same chapter it says, “After the next two fiscal years, the deficit will decline and our investment plan will return Canada to a balanced budget....” The Liberal playbook refers to balanced budgets, and in fact, the Liberals promised balanced budgets. They promised small deficits and a return to a balanced budget.
Given that the Liberals promised a balanced budget by 2019 in the 2015 election, given that they promised only short-term deficits of less than $10 billion, and given that they promised these short-term deficits only to fund historic investments in infrastructure, the question is why they are now implementing a structural deficit in a budget with over a $20-billion deficit. Why does the finance minister repeatedly refuse to give any timeline for a balanced budget at all? Why does he bizarrely criticize the Conservatives for even asking about a balanced budget when he ran on an election platform that contained that very promise?
In fact, the finance minister got lucky this past year. The Canadian economy benefited from a whole host of factors, for none of which the finance minister can take any credit. Commodity prices were better than forecast. The world economy has had perhaps its best year since the great recession. The American economy was positively booming with a record-setting stock market run. Real estate price inflation has continued in Canada. Interest rates have remained low. Even with all of these factors in his favour, the finance minister still ran a promise-breaking deficit in this budget following what will surely be one of the strongest economic years in this Parliament.
If the minister promised to return to balanced budgets, he has completely failed to deliver, and it is more than reasonable for opposition members to ask if not now, then when. Given that a return to balance was a huge part of the Liberals' election promise, we would not be doing our jobs as an opposition holding the government to account without asking that question and no answer has been given so far. Still, there really is nothing in the bill to address that question either.
There is, however, in the original budget a troubling item contained on page 290, and that is a recognition of the fact that Canadian oil sells at a significant discount to world prices due to a lack of pipeline capacity in general and the routing of existing pipeline capacity mostly to the oversupplied Cushing, Oklahoma hub rather than to tidewater or to other refinery areas with spare capacity. This discount from world prices, which the government commented on in the budget itself, has grown significantly worse in the past few months.
This difference between the price that our producers get and world prices has a significant impact on business profits and jobs in the industry. The discount has an enormous impact on tax revenues to both the oil-producing provinces and to the federal government itself and it dictates the viability or non-viability of future projects. Simply put, this discount means that we are actually exporting tax revenue and public services to the United States.
Using round numbers, Canadian exports are about three million barrels a day. If Canadian producers take a $20 discount, that means the industry loses $60 million a day, or roughly $22 billion per year. A significant portion of that $22 billion will be taxable income at both the federal and provincial levels. The federal government loses billions in tax revenue because of this price differential, so it cannot be ignored as a factor in the budget.
What is truly alarming today, given the debacle over the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion, is that the finance minister, in his budget, assumes that both Trans Mountain and Keystone XL will be built at a reduced price discount. We obviously know that these assumptions are being challenged right now. Both projects at best will delay projected revenue from profitable oil production, but in typical fashion, the finance minister has just assumed that the pipelines will be built even though a host of opponents are doing everything they can, including breaking the law, to prevent these pipelines from getting built.
The finance minister surely knows that he has cabinet colleagues who oppose the energy industry, that he has caucus colleagues who campaigned in the last election against the Trans Mountain expansion, and that the most senior unelected adviser to the Prime Minister is notoriously anti-pipeline. Therefore, it was a fairly bold assertion for him to simply assume the Trans Mountain and Keystone XL pipelines would be built. Both projects are behind schedule. Both continue to be opposed by extremists committed to everything from vexatious litigation to violent clashes with police while defying court orders, trespassing, and destroying private property.
Given the government's track record, what credibility does it really think it deserves on pipelines? The finance minister's budget assumes the pipelines are going to be built, and yet one of the first things the government did after it was elected was to kill the northern gateway project, which was a pipeline to tidewater approved previously. The proponent was working through the conditions and the concerns that had been raised about the project when the Liberal government used an arbitrary tanker ban to ensure that it could never be built.
Then the Prime Minister completely failed to get Barack Obama to approve Keystone XL, which added another couple of years to the delay of that project. The finance minister is counting on this project to reduce the differential that has to be taken into account in his tax revenue projections.
We know energy east was killed by the government's decision to move the goalposts on its proponent by absurdly deciding to make both upstream and downstream emissions part of the criteria. I say absurd because the emissions from fossil fuels moved through a pipe are mostly determined by the type of vehicle the fossil fuel is put into by the end consumer.
Now the government is even pushing through Bill C-69. At the environment committee, the president of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association said, “It is hard to imagine that any pipeline project proponent would be prepared to test this new process or have a reasonable expectation of a positive outcome at the end of it.” He went on to say, “If the goal is to curtail oil and gas production and to have no more pipelines built, this legislation may have hit the mark.”
What is the finance minister going to do if the capital flight that has been under way for months cannot be reversed? What is he going to do if nobody will invest and create jobs in the resource sector? What is he going to do if interest rates exceed his expectations? What is he going to do if there is a real estate price correction? What is he going to do if the NAFTA renegotiations end in trade restrictions that damage Canadian access to the American market? Even with everything going his way he cannot balance the budget. Was he going to do it if any of these eventualities happen or any of the hundred other unforeseen events should happen? Now is the time to establish a fiscal cushion to prepare for the inevitability of difficult times ahead.
The budget is not balanced. There is no plan to balance it. There is no date for the budget to be balanced. There is no plan that will get pipelines built, which has a significant impact on the finance minister's ability to balance future budgets. There is no apology by the Liberals to Canadian voters for breaking their promise on the deficit in the first place. There is nothing in the budget implementation act to address any of these issues.
What does this bill do? It makes certain changes to the Income Tax Act to implement changes announced by the Minister of Finance last summer on the taxation of Canadian-controlled private corporations, and other tax changes that we are now getting to the point where the CRA has to actually implement them.
We know that on July 17, the Minister of Finance dropped his bombshell announcing that too many wealthy Canadians were using complex corporate structures to avoid taxes. He went on to announce, following a brief summertime sham consultation, that the Liberals would ram through private corporate tax changes to severely restrict dividend payments between related shareholders, the so-called sprinkling, eliminate the dividend tax credit, which would create the double taxation of passive income with rates at about 73%, and make it virtually impossible to sell a business to a relative, among other things.
I am sure that every member of this House heard from small business owners who do not have a pension, do not have a minimum wage, do not have the protections of employment law, and cannot collect employment insurance. They have to be 100% liable for the conduct of their own employees, who they also cannot sue for gross negligence. What all of these people, these hard-working business owners, heard in the summer was the wealthy finance minister called them tax cheaters.
What happened after that announcement was remarkable. Business owners and tax experts all across Canada spontaneously rose up and with diverse voices unanimously spoke in opposition to every aspect of the minister's proposals. This grassroots opposition did cause the government to partially backpedal on some of its plans contained in this bill. The part of last summer's announcement that many found the most egregious was the double taxation of passive income. Therefore, in December, the finance minister backpedalled and said there would be a limit under which the double tax would not apply. What he did instead in the budget, was he said there would now be a tie-in between passive income and access to the small business rate, which will now be reduced or eliminated for small business owners who have passive incomes of greater than $50,000.
My suggestion to addressing the problem that he created back in the summer was simply a complete retraction of what the Liberals had announced then, and an apology to all of the hard-working small business owners across Canada who were deeply wounded by the bold assertions the finance minister made. Let us face it. The reason the finance minister and the Prime Minister believe that small businesses are really just tax dodges for the wealthy is that they themselves use private corporations to dodge taxes. All the while he was pointing his finger at shopkeepers, farmers, plumbers, realtors, accountants, doctors, lawyers, engineers, taxi drivers, and restaurant owners, the finance minister, that wealthy-born one percenter, was found to have failed to disclose the private corporation he used for tax planning purposes to shelter income and future gains on his French villa. Contrary to his past statements and all expectations of a minister of the crown, much less a finance minister, the finance minister still owned millions of dollars of Morneau Shepell shares.
How was that fact concealed from the public for almost two years? The shares were held in a private numbered company the finance minister registered in Alberta, presumably for tax-planning purposes. It was owned by him, his wife, and another Ontario numbered company. For the first time in the span of a few months, the finance minister was found not only to be personally using complex corporate structures to avoid paying tax but was using them to avoid requirements of the Conflict of Interest Act.
It is high time for this finance minister to end his war on small-business owners and to apologize for his own hypocrisy instead of proceeding with changes to the Income Tax Act contained in this bill.
If passed, this bill would also hand over to the CRA responsibility for dealing with the changes to the tax on split income and the reduction of the limit on the small-business tax rate for small businesses with over $50,000 in passive income.
As shadow minister for national revenue, I could not help but notice that 2017 was a particularly tough year for the Minister of National Revenue and her agency. Every time we turned around, it seemed the agency had a half-baked plan to raise additional tax revenue at the expense of some vulnerable group or another, such as when the minister spent the entire months of October and November insisting that the CRA had done nothing to deny the disability tax credit to type 1 diabetics, despite the fact that it was obvious to everyone except her, and perhaps her parliamentary secretary, that of course the CRA had changed its forms in May 2017 to make it harder to qualify.
The agency also changed its folio to state that after 2017, it would tax employee discounts and meals, but the minister again seemed to be the last person at the agency to be aware that this was being done, before she ordered a reversal. The agency also appeared to be targeting single parents, restaurant-server tips, and disabled Canadians, who suddenly had problems qualifying for the disability tax credit.
On top of that, tax preparers complained about an ever-increasing backlog of corrections and appeals caused by sloppy or incompetent assessments, and a scathing Auditor General's report confirmed that the agency's call centre hangs up on people 64% of the time and gives incorrect information to 30% of the rest who get through.
To an agency already struggling, and a minister who is clearly not in control of her department, this bill would now add a complex reasonableness test for dividends paid to related shareholders of private corporations. Let us think about that. An agency that hangs up on people and is wrong almost a third of the time when it speaks to taxpayers would now have to answer questions about things like the reasonableness of the payment of dividends, questions about share classes, questions about labour contributions, questions about property contributions, questions about the financial risks assumed, and a great catch-all, questions about such other factors as may be relevant.
How on earth can Canadians expect that they will get reliable answers to these questions, given the track record of both the current government and the CRA's call centre? These questions have been asked here in this House and at committee meetings and even at public meetings attended by the minister, and nobody from the government has been able to give anything but the most vague and hypothetical answers to these questions. Canadians might be forgiven if they are a bit worried that nobody knows the answers to these questions and that the legality of thousands of Canadians' tax planning is going to be at the mercy of future court decisions.
It would be very easy to go on for a lot longer about different aspects of this act, such as the implementation of the higher taxes on beer, wine, and spirits and the escalator clause; and certainly about the carbon tax, which is also part of the government's horrific mismanagement of its natural resources policy and an outrageously regressive tax on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. However, time marches on, so I will wrap up.
I would like to conclude by urging members to vote against this bill, given that it would increase taxes; would fail to even address the very concept of a balanced budget; would do absolutely nothing to get pipelines built, the very same pipelines the budget needs for its own tax revenue; would help facilitate this minister's war on small business through the changes to the taxation of private corporations, and of course, would enable the job-destroying, poverty-inducing carbon tax. Therefore, I will be voting against this act, and I urge all other members to do so as well.