Instead of making good on its campaign promise to “allow charities to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment,” the Trudeau government has opted for a half-measure to try to reverse the Harper government’s efforts to stifle dissent: it has agreed to end the charity witch hunt just as soon as the current audits are finished.
National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier has said that two dozen political activity audits of charities launched under the Harper government’s tenure will continue. The minister contends that she does not want to be seen to be interfering with the independence of the Canada Revenue Agency, which would make sense if these audits had come out of some sort of routine compliance procedures within the CRA.
Of course, to believe that you’d have to believe that the CRA managed to draw up a charity hit list that just happened to mirror the list of charities the Harper government found most irritating — groups its ministers wildly accused of being everything from enemies of the state to terrorists. And you’d have to believe that the Harper government’s instructions to the CRA to focus scarce resources and attention on charities that it made no secret of loathing was in no way interference with the day-to-day activities of the CRA.
Clearly political interference is how we got here and why two dozen charities are under audit today. And political leadership is needed to put an end to them.
Of course, the expansion of political activity audits was also enabled by a large funding boost for this very purpose put in place by the previous government, which simultaneously cut the resources the CRA had available for the actual productive work of catching tax cheats and keeping up with the ever-evolving industry of hiding taxable income and profits offshore.
What’s clear is that the time and money the CRA has poured into attacking the legitimate work of charities has been highly unproductive: the agency has found little evidence that charities are abusing political activity rules, despite the antiquated nature of these rules and the strict limits they place on charities trying to advocate for a healthier environment, better health care or a more equitable society.
Meanwhile, the selective nature of the audits couldn’t be clearer. CRA memos obtained by The Canadian Press, for example, identified the need to audit the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a highly respected social research organization, because its research was “biased” and “one-sided.” Strangely, research from outspoken conservative organizations, such as the Fraser Institute and the Montreal Economic Institute, is not seen in the same light by CRA auditors.
In fact — as two comprehensive reports by the Broadbent Institute clearly show — these conservative organizations, which regularly promote their agenda of smaller government and lower taxes in the media and elsewhere, routinely tell the CRA that they spend zero charitable dollars on political activity, a contention the CRA seems happy to accept at face value. To the best of our knowledge, none of these right-wing organizations have been recently targeted for political activity audits.
But really, do we want a charitable sector that is afraid to say anything about public policy? Is this a useful restriction in a world grappling with huge and complex problems like climate change and income disparity?
Other countries don’t think so. Charities in the United Kingdom have wide latitude to engage in public policy discussion. In fact, the UK Charity Commission recognizes the need to have charities involved in vigorous public debate, stating, “Campaigning, advocacy and political activity are all legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake.” As in Canada, the Brits make it clear that the line that cannot be crossed is partisan activity — actually endorsing political parties or candidates or working directly on their behalf. Which makes total sense.
What makes no sense is saying that an environmental charity that calls for policies to support a switch to less climate-damaging energy sources is somehow abusing our trust. Or that a health charity concerned about the rapid rise of e-cigarette usage should simply ignore the health implications and regulatory gaps opened up by this trend.
Gagging charities certainly would be convenient for some powerful interests, interests with many times the resources and insider influence of the average Canadian charity. But would that really make our country stronger?
The answer, of course, is no, which is why it is time for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to call off the dogs. It is time to end politically motivated audits of Canadian charities and adopt modern rules that allow charities to play an active role in building the kind of inclusive and sustainable society the prime minister claims he is committed to achieving.
Author: Rick Smith