Long before he battled Superman in this month's over-the-top film fight fest, Batman took on another comic book foe: Two-Face. Once a popular district attorney, the tragic Two-Face turned evil after half his face was horribly burned, and his fractured psyche resorted to coin flips to make decisions.
Canada's tax code has become just as absurd as the comic book character. Layers of political pandering and unintended policy outcomes have made tax rules a complex labyrinth that produce virtually random results. Is your tax bill higher or lower than last year? Let's flip a coin.
Take the donut business. Go down to your local Tim Hortons, buy a sour cream glazed donut, and you won't pay GST. Even if you get it warm from the oven - or if you're picky and you get them to heat it up for you -- Timmy's collects no GST.
Yet buy a fresh, warm donut from a mobile catering truck, as one small business owner told us this spring, and the Canada Revenue Agency expects its five per cent GST. That owner is now in dire financial straits as she tries to dig herself out from under a five-figure GST bill. Same product, different tax rules, all because every one of her donuts is warm, while only some of Tim Hortons are.
The PST is even worse. Fireplace companies are forced by government to charge different amounts of PST depending on whether they install the fireplace or not. If homeowners buy a fireplace and install it themselves, they have to pay PST on it. But if a professional installer puts it in there's no PST on the fireplace. Yet it's the same fireplace!
During the TransLink tax campaign last year, two firms did similar work: Stratcom and Candidate Cloud. Both did YES side mailouts, phone banking, robocalls and telephone town halls. They both worked on getting out the vote for the TransLink mayors, and both were paid with your tax dollars.
But there was a difference. Candidate Cloud charged TransLink PST, while Stratcom did not.
According to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Candidate Cloud billed $737,360 plus $36,868 in GST and $51,615.20 in PST.
Stratcom, on the other hand, billed TransLink more than $1.5 million plus more than $75,000 in GST - but just $489.09 in PST, a reimbursement on some printing they outsourced. Why so little PST? One presumes the two companies were given different advice as to what was owed. It will be interesting to see if Candidate Cloud gets a big refund, or if Stratcom has to come up with more than $100,000 in missing PST.
Then there's the arbitrary way tax laws are enforced. CBC News broke the story of amnesty given to at least 15 wealthy people who participated in a KPMG tax avoidance scheme that allegedly moved $130 million into the Isle of Man to avoid Canadian taxes. No one was charged and no penalties had to be paid.
Think that same amnesty deal is given to any non-wealthy taxpayers? Not according to the many, many stories we hear from taxpayers every year.
The CRA is rightly concerned with making sure people pay the taxes they owe, but this principle should be applied consistently, regardless of the taxpayer's net worth. There shouldn't be special deals for wealthy individuals.
Forget the fateful flip of a coin. Canadians deserve to be treated equitably by every government agency. In fairness to the tax collectors, many of these rules seem arbitrary precisely because they are. It's a conundrum: the more complicated and bloated the Canadian tax code becomes, the more imprecise and interpreted-on-a-whim it becomes.
Gotham had Batman to clamp down on the chaos of Two-Face's coin flips. It's time for taxpayers to demand a tax code that's simple and fair. Until then your taxes are up in the air.
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