by Angelo Persichilli The Hill Times (Nov. 13, 2017)
A newly appointed minister once told me that when he went to his ministry for the first time, he was welcomed by the staff with congratulations and toasts. The deputy minister was a close friend of his and, after the party, the minister privately thanked him for showing up. His deputy then gave him a very useful piece of advice, saying “my friend … it was not you who welcomed us, but us welcoming you.”
The minister still didn’t understand and asked his friend to be more specific. “This is our house, not yours. You are a guest,” he responded. The deputy minister basically told the minister that he and the department would be there long after the minister is either defeated or replaced.
This story came to my mind last week when reading about the Paradise Papers and how rich people avoid paying taxes. According to media reports, when former British prime minister David Cameron tried to make the issue a major agenda item at the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland in 2013, the world’s tax havens “sensed a possible crackdown on their livelihood.”
Cameron’s initiative got immediate support from then-Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, but it went nowhere. In fact, as the CBC reports, a lobby group called the International Financial Centres Forum, whose very name uses a euphemism for tax havens, soon sprung up, and a subtle but very powerful lobbying campaign started up on both sides of the Atlantic, involving bureaucrats in Canada and the United Kingdom. In the end, nothing happened.
Coincidentally, Cameron and Harper are now gone, while the bureaucrats are still there, and we’re still talking about how tax havens and rich people are syphoning money into financial black holes in the Cayman Islands, while many Canadians struggle to make ends meet.
As The Toronto Star wrote last week, not only did senior Canadian public servants meet with representatives of the lobby group, but “one actually seems to have provided advice on how it might advance its anti-regulatory agenda.” And this was against the official political position of the Canadian government.
This is not an accusation against all public servants, the vast majority of whom are doing great, honest, and useful work. But, among bureaucrats, as in any other category, there are people overstepping their role and engaging in a creative freelancing in their actions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked last week about Liberal fundraiser Stephen Bronfman, whose name was connected to the Paradise Papers.
Bronfman denied any wrongdoing and Trudeau said that he is satisfied with the explanation. Now, do we really believe that our young and sparkly prime minister will be able to put an end to it? Never mind questioning his political will to do it, do we really believe that he has the power to change anything? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe that after a few weeks, nobody will talk about Paradise Papers and everything will be back where it has always been.
How can that be possible? It is very simple. For all the talk of tax evasion and tax avoidance, we will be told by the powers that be that there is nothing illegal going on and that everybody has respected the law. But this is the point: the problem is the law, and someone must change it. With all due respect for Justin Trudeau, I believe he doesn’t have the power to do it, never mind his political will.
A famous Italian politician once said that between politics and bureaucracy there is a very thin, invisible line, but whoever tries to cross it will be politically electrocuted. And that was exactly the message that the neophyte minister received from his close friend on the first day in his new job.
Angelo Persichilli is a former Stephen Harper Director of Communications, a former GTA-area citizenship judge, a former columnist for Toronto Sun and Toronto Star and a former political editor at Corriere Canadese, Canada’s Italian-language newspaper based in Toronto. The Hill Time