They take us for fools

I am by Canadian standards low-income. I try to live simply here on my secluded, rural property on a modest pension income, supplemented by a relatively small amount of money from self-employment.money

I’ve always worked hard, and always will, for as long as I can. In that respect I daresay I’m the same as the vast majority of people in the world, especially these days.

And like most Canadians I’ve always paid my taxes. Now that my 2015 income-tax return is done I have a small amount to pay to help support the cost of government, including the projected $29.4 federal, economic-stimulus budget.

My little contribution is hardly a drop in the proverbial bucket. I don’t begrudge it, or the much bigger amount I routinely pay in 13 percent sales tax, as long as the money is used wisely and helps build a better future for my country, my family, and the world after I’m gone.

It really bothers me though that some of the richest people among us don’t pay their fair share; that’s because they can afford to drive a truck through tax loopholes that allow them to put their money in “offshore” accounts and “shell” companies in various tax-haven jurisdictions where they pay little or no tax.

I’m certainly no expert in such matters. All I know is what I read in the papers, as that great American philosopher and rope-twirler, Will Rogers, used to say. And what I read in the on-line, virtual papers this week about the leaked or hacked, so-called “Panama papers” is eye-opening, to say the least.

The news that broke a week ago about the vast network of secretive, offshore financial dealings of some of the richest and most powerful people in the world, may be just the beginning of much more to come. Let it come, I say. The more we know about that secretive world of big-money manipulation and who’s doing it the better.

It strikes me as frankly disgusting that for many years now the rich and powerful have been pulling the financially-conservative strings behind the scenes to limit the ability of governments to pay for services people desperately need, while they themselves are not paying their fair share.

They take us for fools.

The Panama papers’ revelations are contained in 11.5 million “leaked” documents obtained about a year ago by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). A team of 370 investigative journalists from 80 countries reviewed the documents, which go back 40 years, and did follow-up work. They managed to keep it secret all that time, no easy feat itself.

The ICIJ published the results of its investigation in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and more than 100 other news organizations around the world. In Canada they were the Toronto Star and the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster. Both have a solid reputation for doing investigative reporting. The ICIJ’s trust in those two news organizations is not misplaced.

And let’s all stand up and cheer for Freedom of the Press. This is what it’s all about, folks.

The “leaked” documents were the property of Mossack Fonesca, a law firm based in Panama. It’s still not clear if they were indeed leaked.

According to the ICIJ, the firm has branches in London, Beijing, Miami, Zurich and more than 35 other places around the world. The Vancouver Sun reported Wednesday a company named Mossack Fonesca (Canada) Inc. had an office in Vancouver briefly, starting in May, 1998; but it was dissolved less than a year later, according to provincial registry records.

The ICIJ said Mossack Fonesca is one of the leading facilitators of offshore deals in the world. It’s not the only one, and not even the biggest. That says volumes more about the scope of the “offshore” tax haven industry, if I can call it that. The “Panama papers” are just the tip of a very big iceberg.

For its part, as of this writing, the law firm has denied doing anything illegal, and expressed outrage little news-media attention has been paid to the “criminal” act that must have been involved to get the data.

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported it all began with “a simple and anonymous message” that flashed on the computer screen of investigative reporter Bastian Obermayer in Germany last year: “Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in data?”

Obermayer, a reporter at Sueddeutsche Zeitung, soon responded, “We’re very interested.”

He and the ICIJ have gone to great lengths to protect the identity of the source for obvious reasons.

No doubt the hounds have already been set loose to find him, her, or them.

A Reuters news agency report published Tuesday in The Owen Sound Sun Times said friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin and relatives of high-ranking leaders of China, Britain, Iceland and Pakistan, and the president of The Ukraine, Petro Boroshenko, are mentioned in the “Panama papers.”

The Chinese government and its internet censors were a little slow to react to the news that broke on a Sunday, but within a day or two all mention of it on internet websites, newspapers and any other venues in China was removed. The only official comment was that it was all “baseless accusations” perpetrated by foreign enemies of the regime.

In tiny, free Iceland Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson resigned after people there took to the streets of Reykjavik when documents showed he and his wife had allegedly set up a company in the British Virgin Islands in 2007 with the help of the Panamanian law firm.

The names of 350 Canadians with investments in offshore tax havens are reportedly mentioned in the “Panama papers.”

Canada’s Revenue Minister, Diane Lebouthillier, has ordered officials at the Canada Revenue Agency to obtain the data, in hopes of cross-referencing it with information the agency already has through its own devices.

It’s all very complicated, and deliberately so: the better to make it difficult for government agencies like Revenue Canada to track it down.

In an on-line article Maclean’s magazine said official Revenue Canada figures speak of $200 Billion “in Canuck wealth” socked away in offshore tax havens, with annual tax losses “somewhere in the $6 Billion to $7.8 Billion range.”

It may be legal, or not. We may soon find out.

But in the meantime, it’s not fair.

Originally published in The Sun Times April 9, 2016

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