COMMENT: Canadians deserve answers on political activity audits
Are the Conservatives misusing Canada’s tax agency to silence their critics?
September 19th, 2014 - 9:19am
By Murray Rankin, Toronto Star
In an open letter addressed to Kerry-Lynne D. Findlay, minister of national revenue, professors from across Canada raised concerns about the revelation that the CRA “has undertaken an audit of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) on the grounds that it allegedly engages in politically partisan, biased and one-sided research activity.”
Environmental groups, anti-poverty organizations and international human rights defenders have all been targeted for political audits by the Conservatives.
It is important to recall that these political activity audits, funded with $13.4 million of taxpayer money, were initially launched in 2012 during a barrage of Conservative attacks on environmental groups.
So far, the CRA has launched 52 audits and expects to carry out 60 by 2016. This aggressive campaign of audits has distracted charities from their important work and sent a chill through the non-profit sector, leaving many afraid to speak out against government policies. Disturbingly, it appears that the impact — if not the main purpose — of these audits is to silence groups that are critical of the government.
In response to the serious allegations of intimidation and political manipulation of the auditing process, Findlay retreats to outrage and shock, yet she refuses to provide any credible explanation for the growing body of evidence that indicates something is very wrong at the CRA under her watch.
Due to a lack of transparency on the part of the minister, much of the auditing process remains unclear, but some particularly suspect pieces of information have come to light.
Immediately preceding the announcement of new funding and audits, then Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver lashed out against “environmentalists and radicals” opposed to pipeline development and even alleged that some were involved in money laundering. Shortly afterward, we saw the first round of audits that targeted environmental groups opposing the government’s energy policies — some of which were the very ones singled out for criticism by Oliver.
We also know that at least three of the audited environmental groups were the subject of complaints to the CRA submitted by Ethical Oil — an organization with well-documented ties to the Conservative Party. The potential involvement of Ethical Oil in triggering these audits raises serious questions about the fairness of the auditing process.
Other process questions arise from contradictory statements emanating from the CRA itself. Initially a CRA spokesperson told media that efforts were made to ensure balance amongst the political views of the charities audited — but this statement was later retracted. The current position is that balance was sought across geographic and issue-areas but that the agency does not analyze the political views of charities. Leadership by the minister is woefully lacking.
So the questions are numerous and the allegations are serious — indeed, they threaten the very integrity of the Canada Revenue Agency under the Conservative regime.
For this reason, New Democrats are calling on the Conservatives to suspend these political audits immediately and take swift action in order to clear the air. No one disputes that all charities with the ability to give tax receipts should be fully accountable. That includes being subject to audits from time to time. There are rules on how much political activity a particular charity can undertake; the Canada Revenue Agency has every right to ensure that these rules are being followed.
What is not acceptable is for a government to design a program, with millions of dollars in special funding, with the effect or purpose of sidelining and silencing particular charitable groups whose opinions do not align with the government’s agenda.
Time and again we have seen the Conservatives try to silence anyone that disagrees with them — they have muzzled scientists, kept a detailed “enemies list,” and sent a chill through the charitable sector. And now, it appears that the Conservatives could be misusing Canada’s tax agency to silence their critics.
Charities must not be obstructed from doing their important work and Canadians must have full confidence in the integrity of our tax system. The current situation is untenable — tarnishing the reputations of both the CRA and the charities under the Conservatives’ shadow.
It’s time to clear the air.
Murray Rankin is a Member of Parliament and Official Opposition Critic for National Revenue.