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Conservatives will get another chance to give the big banks a poke – should they choose – as they prepare to make recommendations on how to tackle tax havens.
After months of hearing from expert witnesses, MPs on the House of Commons finance committee are now working on recommendations for a report to Parliament. The committee's study has largely flown under the public radar. It wasn't until hearings had wrapped up that foreign tax evasion suddenly became a major political story.
During the two week Parliamentary recess, a group called the International Consortium of Journalists said it obtained more than 2.5 million digital files related to more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts and nearly 130,000 individuals. The CBC, the only Canadian media outlet that worked with the consortium, has said the file contains information on 450 Canadians. Federal Revenue Minister Gail Shae has called on CBC to hand over the list, but CBC has so far refused. The CBC has also not publicized the full list of names.
There are also growing questions about spending cuts at the Canada Revenue Agency and how Ottawa can deliver on its budget promise to crack down on tax cheats while cutting more than 3,000 jobs at the CRA, the biggest staffing hit of any federal department.
One main recommendation that MPs heard from international experts is that the kind of tax exchange treaties – known as Tax Information Exchange Agreements – that Canada routinely signs with other nations have failed.
"The on-request system of exchanging information between jurisdictions is not working, so it needs to be an automatic exchange with standardized compatible systems," said Dr. Paul Collier, an economics professor with the University of Oxford, who is serving as an advisor to Britain's G8 summit later this year. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said fighting tax evasion will be a priority item on the agenda.
"Finally, there is a need for co-ordination amongst tax authorities. The G-8 in Britain is a real opportunity, a rare opportunity, to get that co-ordination. Canada will not be disadvantaged as long as it moves alongside the other G-8 members," he said.
But when MPs – including NDP revenue critic Murray Rankin and Conservative committee chair James Rajotte – put the idea to Canada's big banks, it got a cool reception.
Russell Purre, RBC Royal Bank's deputy chief anti-money laundering officer, told the committee he would advise "some caution" with the idea of moving toward automatic international exchanges of banking information.
Mr. Rankin told The Globe he hopes that recent events, combined with Britain's G8 focus on tax evasion, might prompt the government to act more aggressively. He wants the committee to hear from the revenue minister before finishing its report.
"As national revenue critic, you would not believe the furor that this [tax havens] story has unleashed," he said. "It's difficult for me to believe that [Conservatives] aren't hearing the same thing that I'm hearing from Canadians."
In a conference call with Canadian reporters during a visit to Bermuda, Mr. Flaherty didn't weigh in on that debate, but did not that there are new mandatory measures that were announced in the March budget.
Mr. Flaherty – who recently picked a fight with the banks over lending rates – noted that financial institutions must currently disclose international transactions greater than $10,000 to FINTRAC, an agency that looks for money laundering and terrorist financing. The budget said these transactions will also have to be reported to the Canada Revenue Agency.
"This is an important step," he said. "This information so far has been used by FINTRAC quite correctly and legally with respect to potential terrorist financing and money laundering, but now the information will also go directly to CRA so that CRA can track unusual or excessive movements of currency."
Bill Curry covers finance in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.