Have the birdwatchers in Waterloo county found a smoking gun proving direct government interference in Canada Revenue Agency’s audits of the “political activities” of charities? I don’t think so, but it’s sure starting to add weight to those who claim so.
The charity leaders and experts I interviewed for my thesis were divided about whether the government directly interfered in the auditing process of CRA or whether it indirectly pushed CRA in the direction of auditing charities that got in the way of the Harper cabinet’s policy priorities.
Some charity leaders spoke of a peer who allegedly has a document that points to a minister telling the taxman to audit their organization. Perhaps so. But I couldn’t get near that alleged document holder and nobody else was sharing anything resembling ink on paper or fingers having graced a keyboard. So perhaps the document exists and will emerge in due course. Certainly, some of CRA decisions around audits are strange, including at least a couple of charities being in a virtually perpetual audit. If that’s not an abuse of authority, it’s hard to imagine what is.
In contrast, there is plenty of evidence of indirect stage-managing by the government to push CRA to the charities that are causing hassles for the government and its resource industry friends. I shall elaborate that below, but first let’s look at some recent news that seems to add a few weights to the side of the scale for those who believe there is direct interference.
The latest news, more great work by reporter Dean Beeby who recently left Canadian Press to head to CBC, concerns a group of amateur naturalists in semi-rural Waterloo County. The Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists received a “warning letter” from CRA after they made public comments that the taxman found problematic. CRA, to its credit, sent a letter rather than auditing the group for political activities. That’s probably just as well for the government. I used to work as a journalist in K-W and area, and in my experience the membership of the amateur naturalists and bird-watching groups heavily leaned toward middle-class Conservative voters.
Former group leader Roger Suffling told Beeby that the letter arrived soon after the group had written to two federal cabinet ministers to protest government-approved chemicals that scientists believe are causing catastrophic declines in bee colonies. The CRA letter arrived just days before a letter of response from Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, and Suffling sees a connection. The group has also invited a guest speaker to speak about the oilsands and has publicly defended the Endangered Species Act from government weakening.
Suffling has written on a blog that the field naturalists have reacted to the warning letter by choosing silence. In my research, I spoke to charity leaders who had experienced their boards of directors, or those of colleagues, pull sharply back from speaking publicly out of fear of being audited by CRA. I found that the Harper government was trying, with some success, to muffle and distract charities from their missions. And in some cases silencing them.
The regulations allow charities to devote 10 percent of their resources (up to 20% for smaller charities) to political activities so long as they do not cross the line into party politics. But it’s understandable when people get scared and withdraw, to the detriment to our society which loses the expert input of these groups.
In any case, the timing of the letter may point to political interference. It’s evidence for consideration, but it’s not proof.
Yet more evidence comes from the results of Access to Information requests by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which has been undergoing a CRA audit into its political activities since autumn 2013. CRA conducted a review of the website of the left-leaning think-tank (one of very few left-leaning think-tanks in Canada, compared to many more that are right-leaning) before concluding that an audit was necessary. A one-page summary concluded that the website review “suggests that the organization may be carrying out prohibited partisan political activities, and that much of its research/educational materials may be biased/one-sided.”
Though the CRA document referred to two prior audits of “political activity” in 1989–90 and 2002, CCPA executive director Bruce Campbell says that if CRA had previous concerns, they were not shared with the think-tank. Campbell also notes, and I think anyone who views the websites of any think-tank (e.g. the Fraser Institute, the Montreal Economic Institute) will agree, that these research institutes all approach their work informed by a “core set of values” though the study findings are based on data.
CCPA declares 1% political activity in its annual filing, so why was it singled out for political activity audits—it’s got room for nine times as much political activity as it’s declaring. And why are none of the right-leaning think-tanks undergoing political activity audits when their websites also clearly speak for certain policy changes?
Is it because it challenges economic policies of the current government, such as through its annual Alternative Budget, while the right-leaning think-tanks come from the same philosophical perspective as the Harper cabinet and merely challenge it to go even further in that direction?
At the very least, the experience of CCPA supports the claims made to me by other charities that the CRA is changing its interpretations of regulations. Charity leaders have long been confused by unclear regulations and are now worried that headway made since 2002 in CRA communications is being thrown into reverse.
There’s no smoke visible yet. But if you sniff the gun-barrel, it seems to me that there’s increasing evidence of a recently discharged weapon.
But my thesis finds that a smoking gun showing direct government intervention is not even the point in the CRA audits.
At the end of the day, I conclude, it does not really matter whether a cabinet minister whispered to a deputy minister who whispered to a subordinate who made things happen. If another, indirect, route was taken to the same effect, the result is still corruption of the proper distance between the political and administrative arms of government, I concluded. There’s clear evidence that the Harper cabinet is using CRA to fight its policy battles and viewing as enemies those organizations that have different policy ideas than the cabinet. I found a funnel pushed CRA to audit those enemy charities.
First step in the funnel was the over-the-top rhetoric starting in 2012 comparing charities, particularly environmental charities, to money-launderers, criminals, terrorists and well, un-Canadian patsies of US interests.
A couple years earlier, a political operative in cabinet minister Jason Kenney’s office had taken a leave to found Ethical Oil, an apologist organization for the Canadian petroleum industry that refuses to answer whether it is funded by pipeline operator Enbridge. Ethical Oil started filing complaints against environmental and other charities who were working on energy-related issues that could impact on the petroleum industry. The political operative returned to the Conservative fold with a promotion to the Prime Minister’s Office.
In the 2012 budget, after the vicious rhetoric had begun, some $8 million (now raised to $13.4 million) was allocated to CRA, along with specific instructions to, among other things, audit charities for political activities. When CRA started checking files, they found that some charities had multiple complaints against them from Ethical Oil. Guess which charities got the brunt of the first round of political activity audits?
So, that’s the “funnel” that drove CRA to target the charities the government wanted muffled and distracted from their missions, missions that got in the way of a full-steam-ahead development of natural resources, particularly the oilsands. Of course, other organizations were also hurt by this activity, but there are always civilian deaths in a bombing campaign, and the Harper cabinet was treating as enemies those organizations that had different policy ideas on key issues.
So, a funnel, yes. And just as effective it seems as a direct whisper being passed through the senior ranks of CRA. Smart like a fox, if out of line with the separation of administrative and political functions. And out of touch with the usual operations of our democracy and the expectations Canadians hold of their government, I’d say.
Who knows what future Access to Information requests will uncover, or whether the charity with the document proving politicization, if it exists, comes forward? But, really: it doesn’t matter whether the government directly influenced CRA to target certain charity sectors with audits, or whether they constructed a funnel. In either case, their rhetoric and auditing has muffled and distracted charities. In either case, it was a corruption of democratic process.
Meanwhile, please check out my Master’s thesis and feel free to forward and tweet it. Check out media coverage of my thesis findings and the national conversation it triggered. And you can follow me on Twitter: @GarethKirkby
I am a former journalist and media manager who recently completed my Master’s thesis for Royal Roads University and now work as a communication professional. I have been awarded the Jack Webster Award of Distinction, among others, for my reporting and editing.