Higgs sees no policy change over Irving offshore revelations

Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters at the legislature that because the tax strategies used by the companies were legal, there are no grounds for banning them from receiving government grants, loans or other subsidies. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters at the legislature that because the tax strategies used by the companies were legal, there are no grounds for banning them from receiving government grants, loans or other subsidies. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

Premier Blaine Higgs says he won't be making any policy changes after new details emerged about the Irving companies' use of offshore tax havens.

Higgs told reporters at the legislature that because the tax strategies used by the companies were legal, there are no grounds for banning them from receiving government grants, loans or other subsidies.

The premier said he'd cut off assistance for companies breaking the rules, "but I don't have any indication of that."

"I don't think we can criticize someone for following the rules."

Higgs was reacting to a year-long investigation by CBC News and Radio-Canada looking at the Irving presence in the offshore tax haven of Bermuda.

It revealed that J.D. Irving Ltd. used an insurance company on the island, F.M.A. Limited., to insure its marine vessels, paying premiums to the Bermuda entity, which then reinsured the vessels at a lower cost, allowing it to collect millions of dollars in profits tax-free.

University of Victoria tax law professor Geoffrey Loomer told CBC and Radio-Canada that the tax strategies were legal.

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

In the legislature Thursday, Green MLA Kevin Arseneau acknowledged that's true but called for a "moratorium" on subsidies to Irving companies.

He also said J.D. Irving Ltd. should be called to testify at a legislative committee that would examine how much revenue the province has lost because of the company's tax strategy.

Finance Minister Ernie Steeves responded that the government wanted "all citizens to take advantage of what opportunities are out there. If you're from New Brunswick, we want you to take advantage of what is available to you in savings."

Higgs repeated that to reporters, saying everyone uses tax deductions to lower their tax bills as much as they can.

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

He said while large companies have "more capacity" to use specialized law firms and accountants skilled at using offshore tax havens, writing off a charitable donation on an individual tax return is "kind of the same process.

"Individuals will do it to the extent of the law, and companies will do the same thing to the extent of the law," he said.

Higgs, a former Irving Oil executive before getting into politics in 2010, said it was "extremely important to follow the regulations" when he worked at the company. His role was in operations, not accounting or taxation.

He and Steeves both pointed out that taxation of foreign assets is a federal responsibility. The premier said he was confident the Canada Revenue Agency would "monitor and measure and determine that the rules are being followed."

Steeves said two officials from his department are on a federal-provincial "tax avoidance working group," and Arseneau should work with the Liberals to lobby federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to make any changes to tax laws.

Asked in the House of Commons about the Irving revelations Thursday, National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier said the federal government has already made it "more and more difficult" to "hide" money overseas.

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

In Fredericton, provincial Liberal Leader Susan Holt endorsed Arseneau's call for a committee to examine the issue.

"We should be making sure that New Brunswickers are all paying their fair share of tax and we have a system that people are participating in equally, so if there are loopholes and opportunities to close that we can act on and close, I think we should."

But Holt avoided taking a clear position on whether Irving companies should lose access to public subsidies.

"Folks who are receiving public funds should be fully participating in our public taxation system," she said.

Asked if using legal tax strategies amounted to not fully participating, Holt repeated her comment that the issue needs to be looked at.

Holt was CEO of the New Brunswick Business Council from 2011 to 2015, acting as spokesperson for the organization representing many of the province's largest employers.

She told reporters Thursday that during her tenure, J.D. Irving Ltd.'s membership in the council was not renewed because the company wanted to take "individual positions" on issues in their own business interest.