Fraser Forum

William Watson: It’s not just filing fatigue you’re feeling—Canada’s tax systems really are getting more complex

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Finishing up our income taxes this week, my wife was complaining how complicated it has all become. We live in Quebec so we have to fill out two income tax forms each. You’d think our fiscally grateful governments would make the process as easy as possible for taxpayers. But on the federal form one deduction amount goes in one place while on the provincial form exactly the same number goes in a different place. Her verdict? Aaaargh! April really is the cruellest month.

The kicker is that she’s a C.A., though not a tax specialist, and she runs the accounting program at a major Canadian university that will remain nameless. And she finds doing our taxes tough. And believe me, it’s not because our incomes operate at Trump-levels of complexity. They’re basically straightforward.

Before she arrived in my life I did my taxes myself. As a matter of principle, I refused to hire someone to do them. I’m a citizen of this democracy. I believe I should be able to understand and do my own taxes. But even though I have a PhD in Economics and actually teach public finance, the economics of taxation included, almost every year I’d get something wrong. As a result, there’d be an adjustment, albeit invariably small, and sometimes in my favour, in my final assessment. Either the tax people were trying to make work for themselves or the process was too complicated even then. But if the two highly qualified taxpayers in my family can’t get it right with minimal effort, what hope is there for non-specialist ordinary folk?

With exquisite timing, the Fraser Institute marked the April 30 filing deadline by releasing a new study of tax complexity. Its authors—François Vaillancourt, Charles Lammam, Feixue Ren and Marylène Roy—use a number of metrics to assess by just how much tax complexity has been rising in Canada. One indicator is the number of tax expenditures offered by our different levels of government. At the federal level in 1981 there were 101 such carve-outs. By 2013 their number had risen to 128. Surprisingly, to my mind, most of the increase came in the last 15 years. There were only 103 such federal tax expenditures in 2001, just two more than in 1981. That’s actually pretty good. One-oh-one is too high to begin with but if you can keep the growth of anything having to do with government to just one per cent per decade, that’s tolerable. In the 12 years following 2001, however, there were almost two new tax expenditures per year. From 2006 on there was at least one new one in every federal budget. Shame on the Harper Tories!

The number of tax expenditures is just one measure of complexity, however.

Another is the documentation you have to work through if you want to fully understand your tax return. If you would like to curl up with the latest version of the federal instructions, you would need 40 king-sized beds to do so.

How does that work?

The complexity scholars calculated the number of pages in the Federal Income Tax Act and regulations. It was 2,612 in 2014. And because page size changes over the years, they also calculated the total surface area of these pages, which turns out to be 1,575,537 square centimetres, which works out to 157.6 square metres, which turns out to be the area of 40 king-size beds. (I learn this from the website The Measure of Things. It’s also 3/5 the area of a tennis court, but you’re more likely to curl up in a king-sized bed than on a tennis court.) In 1971, the equivalent measure was just nine king-sized beds.

Justin Trudeau’s father believed the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Maybe Justin himself could work on getting king-sized beds out of the tax code.