COVID-19 has highlighted large gaps in our collective security that leave Canadians unprotected. From the quality of long-term care to the shortcomings of Employment Insurance, the virus has revealed parts of our social security structure that are dangerously in need of repair.
There is another angle from which Canadians are particularly vulnerable in this crisis. With some of the weakest corporate transparency rules of all the G20 nations, Canada was already a magnet for all sorts of financial crime, from money laundering to tax evasion. These activities don’t disappear during a pandemic. Instead, large-scale health crises offer even more opportunity for fraud and corruption. Security experts have already observed an increase in cybercrime, insider trading, and fraud in the initial chaos of COVID-19.
As governments rapidly spend large amounts of money with less oversight, criminals will look past individual targets and seek out much deeper pockets. While there has been much fanfare recently about small-scale abuse of the CERB program, there is far greater potential for misuse of funds by corporate entities.
Beneficial ownership transparency
The risks for misuse of funds through corporate vehicles are already significant in Canada, where individuals can set up shell companies without publicly disclosing the ultimate beneficial owners behind them. Anonymous corporate entities are used for all sorts of underground or illicit financial activity. One World Bank study found 70% of large corruption cases involved hidden ownership and the misuse of shell companies.
Canada’s tolerance for corporate secrecy has made it an attractive place for criminals and tax dodgers to do business, leading to money laundering or ‘snow-washing’ in cities from Vancouver to Montreal. Major instances of international tax evasion have occurred through anonymous entities incorporated in Canada and the Panama Papers also revealed how shell companies are used to fly under the radar of Canadian authorities.
Many experts have singled out the lack of beneficial ownership transparency as an impediment to tackling financial crime. The numbers speak for themselves. While other countries have recouped millions, there hasn’t been a single conviction in Canada related to the Panama Papers more than four years later.
In the past year, the governments of B.C. and Quebec have taken steps to improve corporate transparency in their provincial databases, but the federal government has yet to commit to a national public registry of beneficial owners – trailing behind dozens of international peers like the UK, Denmark and Ukraine that have already implemented or committed to introduce public registries.
The corruption and crime-fighting benefits of greater transparency are already paying off in jurisdictions such as the UK, which saw an 80% decrease in the incorporation of corporate arrangements associated with money laundering since introducing its registry in 2016.
UK Conservative MP and anti-corruption advocate John Penrose recently urged policymakers to ramp up beneficial ownership transparency during this crisis to address increased risks of corruption and fraud.
The Canadian government should heed this advice and ensure that no public money goes to corporations that conceal their true owners. Improved transparency and sharing of information between federal, provincial, and territorial jurisdictions has never been more necessary.
Procurement and whistleblower protections
Canadians also deserve increased transparency when it comes to government contracts and purchases. Stark figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reveal 10 to 25% of all government money spent on procurement is lost to corruption.
Past emergencies such as Ebola, Swine Flu, and Avian Flu have demonstrated the potential for corruption and misuse of government funds. During the H1N1 flu pandemic, billions were spent stockpiling Tamiflu in a panic but without publicly available medical information about its effectiveness. The treatment turned out to be a colossal waste of government spending, while some senior members of the Bush administration benefited enormously.
To prevent similar abuses, Canada and other governments should publish complete and timely data on vaccine and treatment clinical trials, equipment shortages and make other important medical information in the public interest available.
In addition to these disclosures, we need stronger protections for workers who flag corrupt activity. In both private and public sectors, the role of whistleblowers has never been more critical to our country’s collective safety. Employees should have the means through an anonymous reporting tip-line to warn about issues of public health, misuse of public funds and other concerns.
The Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group recently proposed a number of recommendations to improve whistleblower protections such as establishing an ombudsperson and incentives in the private sector for the risks whistleblowers take.
Far more disclosure is also needed to ensure corporations receiving federal support pay their fair share. Governments around the world lose billions to tax evasion each year. As the costs of combating COVID-19 rise, it is increasingly important that Canada has the policy tools in place to ensure large corporations and wealthy individuals also contribute to this collective effort.
Denmark, France, Belgium, Poland and Wales recently vowed not to provide emergency funding for any corporation using tax havens. Under pressure to follow suit, the Canadian government promised not to provide aid for large companies convicted of tax evasion — but this commitment lacks teeth given our poor record of prosecuting large corporations and wealthy individuals for taxes owed.
A more effective approach would be requiring corporations to disclose their international corporate structure and taxes paid by country. Disclosing country-by-country finances and taxes paid would enable the government and public to identify which Canadian companies are exploiting tax havens.
The Global Reporting Initiative has already established voluntary standards for tax transparency and reporting for large multinational enterprises. Investors, civil society, labor organizations and other stakeholders have thrown their support behind this global standard. The Canadian government should also require large multinational enterprises to publicly report their finances and taxes paid on a country-by-country basis.
Government needs to act now to improve transparency measures
Canadians for Tax Fairness, Transparency International Canada, and other advocacy groups recently released a statement calling for enhanced COVID-19 transparency measures. Recommendations to mitigate risks include denying funding to anonymous corporate entities, publishing details on procurement and other contracts during the emergency and recovery periods, and increasing resources for oversight agencies like the Auditor General, Parliamentary Budget Officer, and Treasury Board.
Emergencies can influence policymakers to lower transparency standards. Already in Canada, governments have faced pressure from business lobbyists to loosen environmental protections and disclosure requirements. This is not the time to scale back conditions, but to strengthen them.
While the government’s approach of quickly delivering aid to those in need has been the right one, it must complement it with measures that ensure public dollars are spent in ways that are open, transparent, and accountable, reaching those that need it most.
Toby Sanger is the director of Canadians for Tax Fairness. James Cohen is the executive director of Transparency International Canada.