Let’s talk politics — or, at least, let’s see what happens when you talk politics. Right now, some of the largest environmental groups in this country are suddenly finding themselves under tax review. According to CBC News, the Canada Revenue Agency is auditing the David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada, West Coast Environmental Law, the Pembina Foundation, Environmental Defence, Equiterre and the Ecology Action Centre.
The audits are being undertaken to see whether the groups have spent more than 10 per cent of their money on political activism. If the CRA finds that they have, then the groups could see their tax-exempt status removed, effectively putting them out of business. Interestingly, the CRA is not saying why it’s suddenly chosen a host of environmental groups for review. (The CBC points out there were complaints about some of the groups from another interest group, Ethical Oil, whose founder is now director of issues management in the Prime Minister’s Office.)
One thing that is interesting is that, while federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced $8 million in last year’s budget to investigate whether charitable groups were too politically involved, it’s only some groups that seemed to be in the crosshairs.
Here’s the minister at a December pre-budget meeting: “If I were an environmental charity using charitable money, tax-receipted money for political purposes, I would be cautious.”
Talk about your legal chill.
Despite the remarkable coincidences involved, the government insists that it is not directing the CRA to audit environmental groups (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). Instead, the suggestion is that the CRA is simply responding to complaints, and undertaking audits because of those complaints.
So here’s an interesting idea, because environmental groups are far from the only public interest groups that get federal tax exemptions.
The Pembina Institute — already being audited — is a non-profit think-tank that “advances clean energy solutions through research, education, consulting and advocacy.”
But what about some of Canada’s other, more business friendly think-tanks?
I’m talking about the C.D. Howe Institute, for example, or the Fraser Institute, or the Macdonald Laurier Institute or even the closer-to-home Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, all four of which enjoy status as charitable foundations, able to issue tax receipts for any donations.
The Macdonald Laurier Institute says it exists to “make poor quality public policy unacceptable in Ottawa. We will achieve this goal by proposing thoughtful alternatives to Canadians and their political and opinion leaders through non-
partisan and independent research and commentary.”
The C.D. Howe Institute boasts on its website that it “commands the attention and respect of Canada’s top opinion leaders and policymakers. The quality and pertinence of the institute’s research, and its capacity to pull together decision makers for off-the-record discussions, is unequalled.”
Pulling together “decision makers for off-the-record discussions?” Sounds a little like advocacy to me.
So here’s a little test we could all try.
What if we were to rouse ourselves from the Olympic torpor (a quiet time the federal government has used to do such things as radically change election rules and limit debate on those changes) and start making complaints of our own?
What if a fair number of Canadians actually contacted the CRA and asked whether business not-for-profits might be doing too much advocacy themselves? I’d love to see a public justification for any group boasting of special off-the-record access to “decision-makers.”
Do you suppose, even for one fragile moment, that such complaints would lead to an audit of groups that weren’t doing something like opposing oil pipelines that our federal government already supports?
The tax system is many things; it is not supposed to be a partisan weapon that can be brought to bear on whoever the government deems to be the latest enemy of the state.
It could all just be coincidence, of course. The simplest way to test that?
Let’s start asking the CRA to investigate and audit some new “charities.”
Russell Wangersky is editorial page editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.