While the revelations thus far about offshore holdings for the purpose of tax avoidance or evasion have provided us with a glimpse into the lives of those well beyond our pay grade, whether or not they have any lasting effect depends largely, not on the reactions of you and me, but rather those of the world's governments. And while public outrage may be high right now, whether those governments will simply ride out that outrage with sanctimonious promises to "go after the tax cheats" and do little, or enact substantive measures to curb this most foul and unpatriotic practice, remains to be seen.
Canada seems to be promising action, with National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier promising substantial resources to go after those who put their own extreme personal wealth above the common good:
With an extra $444 million promised in the March budget, the CRA plans to hire additional staff to target what it dubs “high-risk” taxpayers and corporations. In return, the agency expects to collect an additional $2.6 billion in tax revenues over the next five years.While all of this appears to be a good start, a couple of things puzzle me. It is estimated that between $6 and 7.8 billion is lost to our treasury annually through undeclared offshore holding. Yet, our government is promising only that the initiatives announced will collect an additional $2.6 billion in tax revenues over the next five years. Huh?
It also plans to boost its information technology capabilities to better sort the overseas financial transactions to detect tax fraud. The agency already tracks all financial transactions worth more than $10,000 — about a million a month.
Now it plans to focus its attention on all transactions involving individual jurisdictions known to be tax shelters — starting with the Isle of Man, off the west coast of England. Three other jurisdictions will also be targeted this year but agency officials refused to say which ones.
Secondly, our government has announced which offshore haven it will be examining first, the Isle of Man:
The first is the Isle of Man, which past transactions involving some KPMG clients have already been flagged by the agency. Quebec Liberal MP François-Philippe Champagne said $860 million in funds were transferred there in the last year along. Sixty audits already underway in relation to investments held in the Isle of Man. The CRA intends to contact another 800 taxpayers and corporations to obtain more information about their holdings.Now, I know nothing about the arcane world of tax evasion and avoidance, but is it possible that by signaling its intent, the government is also giving the fiscal malefactors an opportunity to move their lucre to other havens not currently under the CRA's scrutiny?
I think these are legitimate questions to ask, given the fact that the CRA has previously treated tax scofflaws with great consideration. A Star editorial provides reasons we should be a bit cynical:
...while agencies such as the CRA and the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC) are happy to name the small fish they catch breaking the laws and regulations, that hasn’t always been the case with bigger fish.For more details about how the CRA has one approach for most of us and another for the monied class, click here; you may also want to watch the following video:
Just last week FINTRAC, which tracks money laundering and terrorist financing among other things, announced it had levied a stiff $1.1-million penalty on a Canadian bank for failing to report a suspicious transaction and various money transfers. But it declined to name the institution involved. Meanwhile it is busy naming players who have been slapped with fines of $15,000 or less.
And CRA has drawn criticism for quietly offering an amnesty deal to unnamed multi-millionaire clients of the KPMG accounting firm who were allegedly involved in tax avoidance on the Isle of Man. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported that the group was required by CRA only to pay back the taxes they owed, plus interest. Yet the CRA routinely prosecutes and names people who fail to file tax returns or otherwise run afoul of the law.
To close, I'll leave you with this excerpt from the Star editorial that likely sums up how so many of us feel:
If the government hopes to “give Canadians greater confidence that the tax system is fair to everyone,” its agencies should be prepared to publicly name offenders. Cutting deals to spare Ottawa the trouble of prosecuting, or to preserve the “good name” of financial institutions and their wealthy clients, isn’t going to reassure anyone other than the scofflaws themselves.
Ottawa shouldn’t be in the business of shielding those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to insulate themselves and their assets from public scrutiny.