Canadian Press and the Toronto Star yesterday ran reports that the federal NDP wants to recall Parliament’s finance committee this summer to discuss politicization of the ‘political activities’ audits of charities by Canada Revenue Agency.
The CP report paraphrased NDP finance critic Murray Rankin saying public hearings before the finance committee “would give besieged charitable groups a safe venue to speak out without appearing to provoke the tax agency.”
Said Rankin in a direct quote: “It wouldn’t be as if they’ve gone to the press and spilled the beans. … We can’t let this fester much longer. We’ve got to clear the air. It’s bad for the reputation of the CRA and it’s bad for the environmental organizations and other charities that are somehow under a shadow.”
Rankin has a point and I hope that other political parties are listening. In my MA thesis research, I interviewed 16 charity leaders (in five provinces and five different charity sectors—environment being only one) and five charity-sector experts (lawyers, former bureaucrats, umbrella organization staff, academics, fundraising experts).
The large majority, including to my surprise three of five experts, required complete confidentiality in order to speak to me. That’s because they are afraid that if their name, or that of their organization, can be deduced they risk drawing the ire of the taxman or the government. In my thesis analysis using grounded theory, and in interviews with media and my own public writings, I have done my best to represent their experiences, shared facts, emotions, and opinions.
It also bears noting that some interview participants were very happy to be directly identified or deducible to someone who knows their organizations very well, because they consider the rhetoric and actions of the current federal government extreme and bad for Canadian policy-making and the vigor of democracy itself. In any case, it was difficult finding 16 charity leaders willing to take a chance on a Master’s student protecting their organizations, and hence their members, supporters, donors and, most importantly, Missions.
Appearing before a Parliamentary committee to share their organization’s stories could be just the ticket to ensure public protection. Yes, they would be putting it on the line and very publicly. But also, yes, the public and politicians would know who they are and, I suspect, surround them in a protective blanket for years, perhaps decades, into the future regardless of which party is in power. Of course, that’s easy for me to say and hard for them to do.
But organizations that step forward might perhaps become de-facto untouchable after testifying before a Parliamentary committee. Woe to the auditor or politician who strays over the line and targets them in rhetoric or deed, or tries to re-interpret definitions and regulations in order to threaten their charitable status, or to “muffle” and “distract” them as my research discovered is now happening.
In any case, it’s good to see the NDP take this on. Rankin had already called several weeks ago for an independent special investigation into politicization of the audit process, headed by a retired judge or similar person of experience and stature.
I’m wondering where the Liberals are in all this? And the Bloc Quebecois? The Greens? Independents and the Independent Conservative?
For that matter, where are the back-bench Conservatives? The role of charities in society as providers of socially needed services, and as independent experts on public policy, fits very tightly with traditional conservative thought and values.
It’s summer, of course, and even politicians need a break, and we a break from them. But reading the comments from readers to news stories tells me that Canadians care about how their charities are treated by government, and about the government’s politicization of the nation’s administrative arms to fight opponents of its policies.
Meanwhile, please check out my Master’s thesis and feel free to forward and tweet it. 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 communications professional. I have been awarded the Jack Webster Award of Distinction, among others, for my reporting and editing.