Roundup: Those amended tax proposals

Bill Morneau unveiled his latest tweaks to his tax change proposals in New Brunswick today, and it looks like a pretty serious attempt to continue to close the avenues for tax avoidance by means of using Canadian-Controlled Private Corporations, while at the same time trying not to completely dissuade the use of those corporations to help businesses save for rainy days or mat leaves, etcetera – in other words, that he’s taken the concerns seriously. So here are economists Lindsay Tedds and Kevin Milligan to break down the new proposals.

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QP: Having confidence in the Ethics Commissioner

While Bill Morneau was off in New Brunswick to talk tax changes, Justin Trudeau was present for the first time this week, so it was guaranteed to be a gong show. After a moment of silence, Andrew Scheer, led off, mini-lectern on desk, lamenting that Morneau still “controlled” millions of dollars of his own wealth (which I’m not sure is an accurate portrayal of the situation). Trudeau reminded him that Morneau had followed the Ethics Commissioner’s advice, and had additionally just sent her a letter to see if there was anything he could do to go above and beyond her request. After another round of the same in French, Scheer read a portion of Morneau’s mandate letter and demanded to know when Trudeau knew that he was in a conflict of interest. Trudeau reiterated his previous response, calling it the kind of integrity that Canadians expect. Scheer accused Morneau of attacking small businesses while protecting his own wealth. Trudeau returned to questions of tax fairness, and when Scheer pressed, Trudeau produced a copy of the Liberal campaign platform and read that it was a promise made then that they kept. Guy Caron was up for the NDP, and he too pressed on Morneau’s shares, and Trudeau reiterated that Morneau worked with the Ethics Commissioner. Caron proffered the latest conspiracy theory that Morneau tabled Bill C-27 for the sole benefit of his old company, and Trudeau reiterated the Commissioner talking points. Nathan Cullen reiterated the claims in English, and Trudeau tripped up in referring to the Commissioner as the “Conflict of Ethics Commissioner,” to great uproar. Cullen tried again, and got the same answer — including the same slip-up.

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Roundup: Holding companies and crying wolf

The fixation on Bill Morneau and his family wealth is becoming mind-numbing, with new conspiracy theories and allegations of conflicts of interest arriving daily. While the Conservatives made him the subject of their Supply Day motion, demanding he produce all documents he shared with the Ethics Commissioner while continuing to promulgate the absurd conspiracy theory that he was pushing through the private corporation tax changes for the benefit of his company, while the NDP crowed about more alleged “appearances” of conflicts with his tabling a pension reform bill that his family company could, in theory, benefit from. And the subject of whether or not he still controls shares in said family company went through the media cycle like a tornado, with confirmation from the Ethics Commissioner in committee testimony that she didn’t tell Morneau to place his shares into a blind trust – because, as it turns out, he doesn’t control them, having already offloaded them into a holding company that he doesn’t control (apparently his wife does), and none of this is subject to current rules under the Conflict of Interest Act. In response to it all, Morneau sent a letter to the Commissioner requesting a meeting to see if there’s anything else he can do to further comply with the rules that he’s already complying with per her advice.

Two things here – one is that the Commissioner has raised this exception to the Act in the past, and when the Act last came up for review in 2014, she flagged it then and it wasn’t acted upon. Guess who was in power then? The Conservatives, who also pushed through all of those changes to various accountability legislation in 2009, along with the NDP. The second point is that we have constantly been bombarded with constant baseless accusations about the “appearance” of a conflict of interest for everything under the sun. And with these various conspiracy theories being put forward, even Occam’s Razor will tell you that the idea that these changes being put forward, either to pensions or private corporation taxation, for the benefit of Morneau’s company are absurd on the face of it. Pension reforms have long been debated, and there are reams of data about the problems that these private corporations are being used for reasons they were not intended to be by wealthy individuals in order to avoid taxation. Trying to use Morneau as an excuse to make the government back off on either is absurd and shows just how debased our ability to debate is in this country if debate is being replaced by personal attack. Never mind the fact that there has been a whole lot of crying wolf. If everything is a conflict, then nothing is a conflict. Sooner or later a wolf will come, and nobody will care anymore, having been completely numbed by the constant cries beforehand.

(Incidentally, Dawson also called on the government to amend their fundraising bill to include parliamentary secretaries as those who must report, for what it’s worth).

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QP: Selling shares, ad nauseam

While the PM was in Toronto and Bill Morneau in Montreal, it was promising to be an insufferable day in Question Period. Andrew Scheer led off, accusing Morneau of evading Canadian taxes while labelling small businesses as tax cheats (not true), and Bardish Chagger got to stand up to read that Morneau followed the advice of the Ethics Commissioner and that they trust her. Scheer tried again, and Chagger read that they are making changes to their proposals based on what Canadians told them, and hey, lower small business taxes! Scheer switched to English to worry that Morneau didn’t place his shares into a blind trust, and Chagger read another trite statement. They went another round, Chagger trying to play up small business week, and then another round again. Guy Caron was up next, leading for the NDP, raising the supposed conflicts of interest that Morneau was involved in — per the letter that Nathan Cullen sent to the Ethics Commissioner — and Chagger reminded him that they cleared everything with the Commissioner and after another round of the same in French, Cullen got up to reiterate and tried to get Duclos to respond based on pension legislation that could, theoretically, benefit Morneau’s family company, but Chagger gave her stock response. When Cullen chastised her for responding instead of Duclos, the response didn’t change.

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Roundup: The good news rollouts

The Liberals’ planned rollout of all kinds of “good news” announcements for Small Business Week – reductions in the small business tax rate by 2019, and changes to their planned amendments to Canadian-Controlled Private Corporation (CCPC) rules to crack down on those who use them to avoid paying taxes – were very nearly overshadowed by a Globe and Mail article that cried out that Bill Morneau hadn’t put his shares into a blind trust after all. As it turns out, this was largely a non-story – Morneau followed the advice of the Ethics Commissioner, who felt that because of his particular share structure that he wouldn’t need a blind trust but an ethics screen instead – though there are some added complications around it (see Glen McGregor’s tweets). This after the “revelation” about Morneau’s French villa – not that he had forgotten to disclose it, because he had already – just that he didn’t disclose the particular ownership structure, which is a French corporate structure not uncommon with the ownership of non-commercial real estate, known as a Société Civile Immobilière. Again, a non-story that the opposition (and certain media outlets) pounced upon, trying to make a bigger deal out of them than was merited.

And then there was the Prime Minister’s tax cut announcement at that Stouffville restaurant, and the somewhat bizarre behaviour by Trudeau in the Q&A period after where he tried to answer questions directed at Morneau (no doubt trying to keep control of the message and not let it get railroaded by the non-stories about his villa and shares, but it came off as smarmy). And back in Ottawa, his backbench critics seemed mollified by the morning’s announcements, so we’ll see if that holds in the days ahead. (Not to be outdone by all of the Liberal press shenanigans, Andrew Scheer walked out on a press conference when asked about his former campaign manager’s association with Rebel Media.)

Meanwhile, neither Chantal Hébert nor Andrew Coyne are impressed with the theatrics of this government’s attempt to change the channel on the pummelling they’ve received.

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Roundup: A failure to communicate

The state of the “debate” around this latest round of tax nonsense in Canada has me despairing for the state of discourse in this country. From the CRA’s opaque memo, to the Conservatives’ disingenuous and frankly incendiary characterization, followed up by terrible government communications and attempts at damage control (Scott Brison doing the rounds on the political shows last night was painful to watch), and throughout it all, shoddy and inadequate reporting on the whole thing has me ready to cast a pox on all of their houses. If anything was more embarrassing than Brison’s inability to explain the issue while reciting well-worn talking points on the middle class, it was David Cochrane quoting the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and asking if MPs need to reconsider their own benefits in light of this.

Hermes wept.

It also wasn’t until yesterday that CTV came up with an actual good fact-check on the issue, what it actually relates to (including how it relates to a 2011 Tax Court decision), and how it’s not targeting the bulk of the retail sector. But that took days to get, during which time we’ve been assaulted by all manner of noise. News stories in the interim that interviewed MPs and the Retail Council of Canada were distinctly unhelpful because they did nothing to dissect the actual proposals, which were technical and difficult to parse, so instead of being informed about the issues, we got rhetoric, which just inflames things. And I get that it’s tough to get tax experts over a long weekend, but Lyndsay Tedds tweeted a bunch of things on it that should have pointed people in the right direction, rather than just being a stenographer for the Conservative hysteria/government “nothing to see here, yay Middle class!” talking points.

Here’s a look at how the government scrambled to get a better message out around the Canada Infrastructure Bank, in order to combat those same media narratives. Because apparently neither side is learning any lessons here.

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Roundup: A new GG and a new NDP leader

Today is the day that Julie Payette is sworn in, and will soon be known as Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada. To that end, she has been receiving the customary signals of office over the past couple of weeks, as she takes on the roles of the chancellor (or “Principal Companion”) of the Order of Canada, the Order of Military Merit, the Order of Merit of the Police Forces, and the prior of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (with note that the Queen is the fount of all Canadian honours).

Payette will have an extremely busy schedule from here on in, acting in the ceremonial capacity that state functions demand, doing diplomacy domestically and internationally, becoming a patron to charities, and keeping on top of her constitutional duties. It’s a big job, but given Payette’s accomplishments I’m quite sure that she’ll be up to the task.

Payette is also the first GG since the 1950s who comes to the position without a spouse, so she has nobody to help share the burden of appearances with, so that will be an interesting change from the past few appointments, where there has been this sense of a two-for-one deal between the GG and their highly-accomplished spouses. It will also, unfortunately, mean that more people will be attempting to download the whole “First Lady” nonsense to Sophie Grégoire Trudeau when the closest Canadian equivalent was the “Chatelaine of Rideau Hall” (when the GG was male – I’m not sure what the male of equivalent of Chatelaine is), presuming that one doesn’t count Prince Philip given that he’s actually the spouse of our head of state (and we don’t have a “First Family” because we have a royal family).

Meanwhile, here’s Philippe Lagassé on the meaning of the GG as our Commander-in-Chief in Canada.

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Roundup: All abuzz about Netflix

It’s probably not a big surprise that the story for which the most ink (physical or digital, take your pick) was spilled yesterday were the culture policy changes that Mélanie Joly announced, punctuated by the grand announcement that Netflix had committed to spending half a billion dollars over five years on Canadian productions. But in there was also news that there would be no big bailout for the news media in this country, and there would be some funding boosts for the Canada Media Fund, the Canada Music Fund and the Canada Book Fund, and a creative export strategy, along with previously announced reforms of the Copyright Board.

Suffice to say, there’s a fair amount of grumbling from traditional broadcasters that Neflix is essentially getting away with murder, not bound by the same CanCon obligations of traditional broadcasters, nor are other Internet giants like Google and Facebook being asked to contribute to the same content creation funds that traditional media are. And there is some pretty legitimate concerns about this announced Netflix deal because it’s pretty opaque – Netflix will continue to be able to operate as a black box when it comes to their subscriber data, and while Sean Casey went on Power & Politics to insist that the $500 million was new money (given that Netflix had previously told Parliament that they were already spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” in Canada), it really doesn’t seem like that’s anything new given that previous statement. Netflix also says that the money isn’t coming from the recent rate-hike in Canada, but that’s not washing with a number of people. The Financial Post has a fairly comprehensive look at the announcement here, including the fact that the announcement seems to leave a lot of the heavy lifting into the future, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise.

I do think it should be incumbent upon us to remember that Netflix has not been a net benefit to the cultural sector in Canada. The late Denis McGrath used to refer to them as a “parasite” on the Canadian broadcast sector because they put no money into the production of shows that they streamed, encouraging the cord-cutting that starved the very platforms who produced those shows that they later streamed of funding. It’s a complex problem, and a handful of Netflix originals aren’t going to be the panacea for the Canadian film and television industry. If anything, it may hasten the decline.

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QP: The Morneau-Shepell conspiracy

Shortly after a fire alarm emptied out the Centre Block, and MPs made their way back into the building, Question Period got underway. Andrew Scheer led off, reading a stilted question about the Omar Khadr settlement in French. Justin Trudeau took the chance to take a partisan shot, saying that this was because the previous violated his rights — not mentioning that it was also the fault of previous Liberal governments — and reiterated his previous speech about how he was outraged and hopefully that outrage would ensure that future governments would not violate rights again. Scheer called out that the Liberals were at fault too, and Trudeau modified his response that it was about previous governments (plural) but added that this was not about Khadr, but about the government’s action and they should stand up for rights even when it’s not popular. Scheer then pivoted to the tax change issue, got the usual talking points from Trudeau, and when Scheer tried to skewer this as being one more cost to the middle class, and Trudeau reeled out his points about cutting taxes on the middle class. Scheer made a few digs at Trudeau’s own numbered corporation and his speaking fees before he was made party leader, but Trudeau didn’t take the bait. Pierre Nantel was up for the NDP, and railed about the announcements on cultural industries. Trudeau read a statement that assured him that they had unprecedented investment from Netflix, and that they would ensure that Canadian creators would benefit. Rachel Blaney asked in English, decrying that Facebook and Google were not being made to pay, but Trudeau reiterated his assurances that Canadian producers would benefit from these funds. Nantel repeated the question in scripted English, Trudeau reiterated that this was great news for Canadian cultural industries, and Alexandre Boulerice closed the round by railing that other media companies weren’t being taxed. Trudeau repeated that they were looking to support the industry as it transitions.

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Roundup: Signs Morneau is listening

For all of the bellyaching from those who consider the government’s tax proposals to be a done deal that may not even get enabling legislation but would instead be rammed through by way of a Ways and Means Motion, it looks like those fears are for naught. In a tele-town hall yesterday, Bill Morneau admitted that there are problem areas that need to be addressed, and they plan to take what they’ve heard in the consultations and try to fix the implementing legislation, especially when it comes to things like how it affects the sale of family farms. Economist Lindsay Tedds was listening in, and she provided a play-by-play with some instant analysis here:

https://twitter.com/LindsayTedds/status/913090762035699712

Meanwhile, Chantal Hébert wonders if Morneau can’t pull out a win that will let both sides claim victory, even if Morneau himself emerges wounded from the process. This being said, Hébert makes the point about the lack of applause from the Liberal benches, which Bob Fife made on The West Block on the weekend, and it bugs me that pundits are still trying to read into this because the Liberals stopped clapping in January 2016, except for rare verbal zingers. It’s not indicative of anything other than an attempt to restore a bit of dignity to the exercise of QP, and making a deal out of it to fit a narrative is bad form.

The Senate’s National Finance committee will examine the proposals as well, and the debate getting there contained some of the usual cheek of some particular senators.

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