Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, in Hong Kong to tout Canada's economic record and promote it as a valuable trade partner, said Monday there has been zero reaction to a budget measure that will increase import tariffs for countries in the region.
Flaherty's eighth budget, delivered on Thursday, takes Hong Kong, China, Thailand and other countries off the list of those covered by the General Preferential Tariff program.
Pushing a trade agenda with Asian economies while at the same time raising tariffs on them could pose a challenge for Flaherty, but no one raised the issue with him during his meetings Monday morning in Hong Kong, the finance minister said.
"There's a business roundtable tomorrow here in Hong Kong," Flaherty said in an interview with CBC News after a lunchtime speech at the Asia Society. "I'll be interested to see whether it's raised — or whether it's raised in Thailand."
Flaherty said he wasn't sure how the measure would be received during his trip to Hong Kong and to Thailand later in the week.
"I think most of the countries that have done well in terms of economic development realize this is a foreign aid initiative that's really designed for poor countries.
"It's difficult for a BRIC country or Hong Kong to say that they ought to be entitled to a preferential tariff as a poor country," he said.
Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, in fact just posted a massive surplus when Flaherty's counterpart John Tsang presented the city's budget last month.
"So far, so good," Flaherty said when asked whether he's confident Canada can still make its case for increased trade despite the tariff measure. Flaherty will have a working dinner with Tsang on Monday evening, and he joked that given Hong Kong's $8 billion surplus, "It would be nice to be the secretary of finance here, no question about it."
Balanced budget in 2015
Flaherty said that during his meetings in Hong Kong he will be talking about Canada getting back to balanced budgets and that his government is on a solid fiscal track to get there.
"We have the commitment to do it and we will accomplish this in 2015," Flaherty said in the interview.
The government is counting on closing tax loopholes and going after tax evaders to bring in more revenue, and Flaherty said the Canada Revenue Agency is going to get the tools it needs to do that. The finance minister said an important change will be a requirement for financial institutions to report to the CRA when transactions of more than $10,000 are made overseas.
Flaherty acknowledged that some Canadians object to the idea because of privacy concerns, but he said that it's a measure that is needed to keep taxes low. "It probably should have been done by governments before ours and perhaps by our government earlier on," he said.
CBC in Hong Kong
Meagan Fitzpatrick has been posted to Hong Kong to bolster CBC's coverage of a dynamic region of the world. Hong Kong is known as an international financial centre, but there is much more to it than that, and it has close connections to Canada. The city of seven million hosts nearly 300,000 Canadians, and about 500,000 people of Hong Kong descent make their home in Canada. Meagan is a senior online writer who covers national news and federal politics in CBC's Ottawa bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @fitzpatrick_m and Facebook: meaganfitzpatrickreporter.
Flaherty told his audience Monday that international trade is key to Canada's future economic growth and that the Conservative government is in the midst of an ambitious trade expansion plan. The goal is to increase exports to the world's fast-growing economies, he said, and the importance of Asia can't be overstated.
Hong Kong a priority market
Flaherty said Hong Kong is a priority market for Canada and that the government is determined to strengthen economic ties with China. He mentioned the controversial Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement, and in the interview with CBC, Flaherty said the interest from China on a free trade agreement is mutual.
"We're interested too. We have an open-door policy with respect to commencing and seeing how far we can get on free trade agreements," Flaherty said.
The trade agreement with the European Union is close to completion, the government has signed nine other free trade agreements since 2006, and "there will be more to come, and certainly we're open to Asia," said Flaherty.
Canada is pursuing talks with India, Japan, South Korea and Thailand but so far has not signed a free trade deal with any Asian nation.
Given the criticism launched at the government over the FIPA, free trade negotiations with China would also likely provoke a lot of reaction. Flaherty said human rights concerns would be "an important issue" and that Canada has always been clear about its position on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
"These are complicated negotiations," Flaherty said. "We would have to start at the beginning and see how it goes."
The NDP criticized Flaherty for leaving Ottawa immediately after delivering his budget, but the finance minister said it is a tradition for him to travel to an international financial capital after budget day, and this year he picked Hong Kong.
He has made several trips to mainland China and other Asian nations, but hasn't been in Hong Kong in more than a decade.
On another matter in Ottawa that was making headlines over the weekend, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page's term coming to an end, Flaherty quipped that he and Page "weren’t that close."
Page told CBC Radio's The House that the Conservatives are trying to "unwind the office." Flaherty, however, said that Page overstepped his boundaries and that a qualified person will replace him.