November 20, 2017

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Eliminating loopholes vital for tax fairness

Canadians believe in tax fairness. We understand our taxes pay for the public services we rely on, like health care, education, healthy air and water, and safe, secure communities. We also know tax fairness means everyone pays their fair share.

But in recent years, the proliferation of loopholes and tax cuts disproportionately benefiting a wealthy few have fuelled inequality, and eroded the notion that we are all rowing together as a society.

Since 2000, tax changes have brought vast benefits to corporations, small businesses and “high net worth individuals” with accumulated financial wealth. The federal corporate income tax rate has been slashed nearly in half, from 29.12 per cent to 15 per cent. Provinces and territories cut their corporate income tax rates, too. Today, Canada’s corporate income tax rate has fallen to the second lowest in the G7, more than 12 percentage points below the United States’ official rate.

The federal small business tax rate has also fallen from over 13 per cent in 2000 to 10.5 per cent today. The amount of income eligible for the lower tax rate has also risen, from $200,000 in 2003 to $500,000. The former Conservative government estimated this added up to more than $10 billion less in taxes paid by small business in the five years between 2008-09 and 2013-14.

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Canadians believe in tax fairness. We understand our taxes pay for the public services we rely on, like health care, education, healthy air and water, and safe, secure communities. We also know tax fairness means everyone pays their fair share.

But in recent years, the proliferation of loopholes and tax cuts disproportionately benefiting a wealthy few have fuelled inequality, and eroded the notion that we are all rowing together as a society.

Since 2000, tax changes have brought vast benefits to corporations, small businesses and "high net worth individuals" with accumulated financial wealth. The federal corporate income tax rate has been slashed nearly in half, from 29.12 per cent to 15 per cent. Provinces and territories cut their corporate income tax rates, too. Today, Canada’s corporate income tax rate has fallen to the second lowest in the G7, more than 12 percentage points below the United States’ official rate.

The federal small business tax rate has also fallen from over 13 per cent in 2000 to 10.5 per cent today. The amount of income eligible for the lower tax rate has also risen, from $200,000 in 2003 to $500,000. The former Conservative government estimated this added up to more than $10 billion less in taxes paid by small business in the five years between 2008-09 and 2013-14.

As a consequence, federal tax revenues as a share of GDP have fallen to the lowest level in 50 years. Meanwhile, since 2000, federal spending on programs and services that working Canadians depend on, as a share of the economy, has fallen below historical norms — to an average of 13.2 per cent of GDP this century versus 16.4 per cent over the previous 35 years.

Tax cuts for large, profitable corporations already hoarding mountains of "dead money" — in former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney’s words — have fed public skepticism and even cynicism over the last decade. This is especially true given that corporate income tax cuts failed to achieve anything like the promised payoff in economic and employment growth over the long, grinding economic recovery.

It’s also corrosive for public trust in the honesty and competency of the political system, since it suggests there’s one set of rules for the top one per cent, and another for everyone else. In 2015, we watched in disgust as the leaked Panama Papers revealed dozens of high-income Canadians stashing wealth in secret offshore tax havens, beyond the knowledge of tax authorities. In the U.S., billionaire Warren Buffett questioned why he paid a lower tax rate than the person he pays to clean his home. His answer: tax cuts showered on the ultra-wealthy, and the fact his income comes from investment, rather than wages and salaries, which is the main income source for the vast majority of people.

To its credit, Justin Trudeau’s government has begun to move towards more fairness, adding a further top tax bracket of 33 per cent on incomes above $200,000, closing some tax loopholes, and making it easier to crack down on those abusing offshore tax havens.

Now the government is moving to address the ways many high-income earners shelter their income by setting up Canadian-Controlled Private Corporations (CCPCs). Two-thirds of the very top of Canadian income earners own a CCPC. Reining in how CCPCs can be used to shelter income from personal income tax is important to reducing income inequality, not to mention gender inequality, since high earners are particularly likely to be male.

This step is just common sense. Today, Canada performs exceptionally well in international tax comparisons. In 2016, KPMG ranked Canada as "the most tax competitive country for business globally," putting us at the top for having the lowest total tax costs for business among industrialized countries.

Canada’s unions, like the majority of Canadians, welcome these changes as an important first step. But we believe far greater changes are needed to make our tax system truly equitable, and to ensure that corporations and the top one per cent pay their fair share.

That includes implementing a more aggressive clamp down on tax havens and corporate tax dodging. It means eliminating regressive and ineffective tax loopholes, cancelling stock-option deductions, fully including capital gains in taxable income, and cancelling the flow-through shares deduction. It means taxing foreign e-commerce companies to level the playing field for Canadian providers. It also means increasing taxes on banks and finance, which have received windfall profits from corporate income tax cuts over the last decade and a half. And it means introducing wealth and inheritance taxes, and making income taxes more progressive. Canada’s tax system still needs a lot of work. Let’s stand in support of these first steps, and then push for more, so we really can make Canada a more fair and equitable society.

Hassan Yussuff is president of the Canadian Labour Congress.

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