I had so hoped that the ancient Shakespearean idiom warning “All that glitters is not gold” might not prove to be so apt for our new Liberal government. However seven months into the mandate that was supposed to be about restoring the lustre to the Canada we love, the glitter of Liberal promises looks less like a restoration and more and more like a rapidly tarnishing veneer.
The Liberal promise to set charities “free from political harassment” and allow them “to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment” seemed so Canadian and so emblematic of fundamentally different way of viewing what government was about. Now it seems that promise was to cut back the harassment of charities further down the Conservative hate list and did not apply to audits of high priority Conservative targets that were already being hit by costly, time consuming and invasive audits.
In a January 2016 statement Liberal Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier said the 24 political activity audits underway would continue because “the CRA’s Charities Directorate must operate independently.” But she had just interfered to call back 60 next in line audits that were scheduled under the Conservatives. And the Liberal promise to set charities “ free…” didn’t mention that it applied only to lower priority audits initiated by the Conservatives. Clearly what was promised and called for was a halt to politically motivated audits–all of them– that sought silence those who spoke out about environmental and social justice.
Were the Conservative audits politically motivated? Well, if the Conservatives were really interested in accountability and proper use of tax dollars why didn’t they initiate an audit of Tony Clements who used a $50-million government program—designated by parliament as an infrastructure fund to reduce border congestion—to pay for little metropolitan monuments to himself with “no paper trail”? Can you imagine what the CRA would say about charities that spent their tax deductible donations with “no paper trail”? $50 million—no paper trail, no accountability! You know what was the 2014 budget of the Canadian Unitarian Council–a small religious group with commitments to things like “Respect for the inherent dignity and worth of all people”– that was high on the Conservative hit list? $85,000. $85,000 with a meticulous paper trail! Vs $50,000,000 spent by Clements with no paper trail. Holy Batman, don’t let anybody tell you this audit of charity spending was anything other than a very focused political attack on those who Steven Harper considered enemies of his plans for a Canada that existed only to serve corporate interests.
It is more than interesting that while the Conservatives were going after charities that promote social justice and environmental well being with a targeted $13.4-million CRA budget they were cutting the budget for auditors to go after the money the wealthy have parked in offshore tax havens to avoid Canadian taxes. According to Canadians for Tax Fairness, in 2013 offshore tax havens hid at least $170 billion that should have gone to the Canadian government. In 2011 Canadians gave a total TOTAL of $8.5 billion in charitable donations. Since I don’t have exact year comparisons let’s just look at the figures as a rough comparison of scale: $8.5 billion vs $170 billion. And what public purpose is being served by the hidden $170 billion tax avoidance?
Probably the clearest indication of how directed, targeted and biased the CRA audits were is to look at who they didn’t audit—The Fraser Institute and a host of corporate interest “think tanks.”
How the CRA could miss the Fraser Institute with its audit of suspicious charities stretches the idea of an independent selection process beyond the remotest credibility. The Fraser Institute is entirely about promoting the interests of private profit and the gutting of any kind of government support for our common good. It can’t be thought of charitable nor as a “charity” in any meaningful sense of the word. Almost everything it does is about political advocacy for right wing causes like cutting health care funding, suppressing minimum wage while labeling minimum wage workers as “affluent” teenagers, reducing corporate taxes, privatizing just about all public services. It prepares and distributes teaching guides designed for those who want to promote climate change denial and publishes papers denying the link between second-hand smoke and cancer. The slightest objective glance at the activities of the Fraser Institute would have put it at the top of the charitable society audit. But, no, it isn’t on the list and neither are the host of right wing, uncharitable think tanks in Canada. I guess the CRA feels it is important to not challenge the charitable intentions of Fraser Institute donors like Exxon Mobil, the tobacco industry, the Republican Party’s darling Koch Brothers. However—you guessed it—the more progressive Canadian Council for Policy Alternatives is one of the first and hardest hit. I don’t know of any of the—many– Right wing think tanks that have been subjected to an audit. All this while the CRA tells Oxfam Canada they cannot work for the “prevention of poverty” and Unitarians can’t advocate for human rights—that kind of advocacy is “too political.”!!!
And it is important to see these “independent” audits in the context of the Harper Conservative’s assault on civil society generally. Beginning in 2006, the Conservative government began a major assault on funding for charities and voluntary organizations. Funding for KAIROS, a coalition of 11 churches and religious organizations working together in faith for ecological justice and human rights, was slashed. Before Harper human rights and ecological justice was a good thing worthy of promotion but under Harper the federal government became increasingly intolerant of even the mildest criticism or dissent suggesting values that were not in the exclusive interest of corporate Canada. Organizations advocating for human rights and women’s equality were stifled, or illuminated by budget cuts. Groups that speak out for reproductive rights, humanitarian immigration policies, and for changes in Canada’s foreign policy in the Middle East were silenced by budget cuts.
The Harper government then went into overdrive in attempting to silence critics of the government and—especially—those who spoke for values the Conservatives didn’t share. Heads of government agencies, commissions, academics and tribunals who insisted on making independent decisions were silenced or sacked. Programs promoting civil society like the National Council on Welfare were eliminated. The blatant suppression of any kind of opposition to Conservative Party values by a government was unprecedented in Canada’s history.
The Conservative government then went into full on attack mode as then-Natural Resources minister Joe Oliver labelled environmental groups “radicals” serving foreign interests. China was welcomed to the oil patch but then China wasn’t “serving a foreign interest”??!! Having dealt with direct federal funding of groups, the Conservatives then turned to the CRA to get at indirect funding of civil society groups through going after their charitable status.
The first wave of audits in 2012 hit environmental groups who had been vilified by Conservative cabinet ministers for opposing the government’s energy policies. The net was later broadened to include poverty, international-aid and human-rights organizations.
And this is the process that the Liberals say they need to let run its course in order to avoid interfering in its independence. There is no independence to it. But for reasons that have nothing to do with the independence of a process–that has been anything but independent–the Liberals are stepping down from their election promises and letting the Conservative axe fall where it may. If there were any credibility in the Liberal promise to let Canadian charities “do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment” there would be an immediate moratorium on these anything but independent attempts to stifle civil society and there would be a fair “independent” audit of the unfair, rigged CRA audits to date. Then there would be a very public consultation on what is”charitable” work and how do we promote rather than stifle it.