Quebec has managed to do what many people thought impossible – getting global tech giants such as Amazon, Google and Netflix to collect taxes on their digital sales in Canada.
Nearly 80 foreign companies are now registered to collect the 9.975 per cent provincial sales tax in Quebec, as The Globe and Mail’s Bill Curry reported this week.
Where, one wonders, are Ottawa and the other provinces, which so far have done nothing to compel these companies to collect sales taxes?
On Jan. 1, Quebec imposed new rules that level the playing field between domestic companies, which have always charged the tax, and their foreign-based rivals, which generally have not.
It is a matter of basic fairness for businesses and consumers. Canadians routinely pay federal and provincial sales tax on their subscriptions to domestic television streaming services, such as Bell’s CraveTV and Rogers’ Ignite, but nothing on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Let’s be clear: This is not a Netflix tax. It is not about raising revenue to fund Canadian content. Canadian companies, such as Bell and Rogers, pay into the Canadian Media Fund, and Netflix is spending $500-million over five years on Canadian programming as part of a deal with the federal government.
It is simply about the equitable application of existing sales taxes on all companies doing business here, regardless of where they’re based. From a public policy perspective, the last thing governments should be doing is giving these global giants a 5-per-cent to 15-per-cent price advantage over home-grown competitors in the Canadian market.
Nor is it primarily about the money. Quebec is making an important symbolic and principled stand.
But for governments, who often spend more than they earn, extending the tax to foreign companies would be a nice chunk of change as digital sales continue to grow. Quebec, for example, estimates the new rules will result in $45-million a year in additional revenues by 2022-23.
Based on the Quebec government’s revenue estimates, forcing these same companies to collect the 5 per cent federal goods-and-services tax across the country would raise more than $110-million a year. Other provinces could raise tens of millions more.
Canada’s laissez-faire approach to digital taxation has produced some strange inconsistencies. If you buy Netflix directly from the U.S.-based streaming service, there is no sales tax. Buy the same service through Apple iTunes and you’ll pay sales taxes. That’s because Apple has stores in Canada, while Netflix does not. Under Canadian tax law, businesses must collect and remit GST and HST if they are “carrying on” a business in Canada.
Likewise, an e-book bought on Amazon is free of tax, while one bought from Kobo is not.
Technically, all Canadians should be self-declaring the GST they owe on these purchases and remitting it to Ottawa. Few of us do.
Unless Ottawa takes a stand, these anomalies will persist. The House of Commons trade committee last year urged the government to force foreign digital companies to collect the tax. But Finance Minister Bill Morneau has so far resisted, saying he wants to wait until Canada reaches a consensus with other developed countries on taxing digital companies before following Quebec’s lead. Talks between members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development aren’t expected to conclude until 2020. And that’s if they can reach a deal.
As Mr. Morneau knows, other countries either have or will move ahead, without the OECD’s blessing, including the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore and some U.S. states.
More likely, Mr. Morneau and the Liberal government are just gun-shy about the political optics. They don’t want to be accused of another tax grab during an election year. After all, they’re already facing a backlash over the carbon tax from Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives.
No Canadian wants to pay more taxes. But this one is a no-brainer. It’s not complicated and it’s easily explainable to consumers. I subscribe to Netflix, Spotify and Amazon Prime. I understand the principle at issue here.
Canada should not be shy about being a leader on this issue.
So, yes, Mr, Morneau please tax my Netflix as you draft this year’s federal budget.
Canadians may still punish your government at the polls, but not for that.