Budget signals attack on charities' advocacy work

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Tim Naumetz – March 29, 2012

Opposition MPs say a surprise allegation in the federal budget that Canadian charities are violating federal rules limiting their political advocacy is retribution for widespread opposition from environmental groups to the massive Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline across British Columbia.

The obscure provision in the budget Thursday to beef up the Canada Revenue Agency’s “enforcement tools” to monitor political activities of charities demonstrates the partisan nature of the Conservative government, opposition MPs said.

NDP MP Megan Leslie (Halifax, N.S.) told The Hill Times the measure is one of several provisions that show the budget, aside from its main thrust of public service spending cuts, is all “pipeline, pipeline, pipeline.”

“The over-arching theme here is this is a budget for the great pipeline to China,” Ms. Leslie said. “This is about pipelines, pipelines, pipelines, and at any cost.”

“Whether it is going after charities, who might have a different opinion, cutting the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy and cutting Environment Canada and not relying on science and evidence, or whether it’s going after the Environmental Assessment Act and weakening it, that’s what this budget says to me, it’s all about pipelines,” Ms. Leslie said.

The reference to political activities of charities was a needle in the haystack of the budget’s total $5.2-billion in broad spending cuts the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) is proposing for the next three years, with a projection that the spending reductions, combined with other economic forecasts, will result in a surplus by 2015, the next federal election year.

But the measure was so unexpected at the traditional pre-budget lockup for journalists that Reuters news correspondent David Ljunggren asked Finance Minister Jim Flaherty (Whitby Oshawa, Ont.) about it at a news conference before Mr. Flaherty tabled the budget in the Commons, asking Mr. Flaherty why the budget was putting the “tax police” on charities.

“We’re not making any changes in the rules relating to charities, we are providing some resources, some additional resources for enforcement of the rules by the Canada Revenue Agency,” Mr. Flaherty said.

“Quite frankly, we’ve had a lot of complaints and concerns expressed by Canadians that when they give money to charities they expect the money to be used for the charities purposes, not for political or other purposes,” he said.

“This not black and white, because the Canada Revenue Agency permits a small percentage of dollars to be used for advocacy and other purposes, but there is clearly a need, in our view, for more vigilance, that charities obey the rules as they are now,” Mr. Flaherty said.

The main budget document noted charities are allowed to engage in political activities, centered primarily on advocacy, as long as the activities are related to their charitable goals and represent a limited portion of their resources—no more than 10 per cent for larger charities.

“Concerns have been raised that some charities may be exceeding these limitations and that there is currently no requirement for a charity to disclose the extent to which it receives funding from foreign sources for political activities,” the budget document states.

Charities are required, however, to disclose the overall amount of money they receive from sources outside Canada. The David Suzuki Foundation, for instance, reported that for 2010 it issued tax receipts for $6.3-million in donations within Canada, and received $553,560 in revenue from sources outside Canada.

The Suzuki Foundation reported it spent $64,937 on political activities in 2010.

Opposition MPs said they believe the charity measure stems from a confrontation earlier this year between Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.) over public hearings into the proposal for a massive pipeline to carry bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to the B.C. Coast for ocean tanker shipments to China and other Asian countries.

Mr. Oliver drew widespread criticism by alleging environmental “radicals” financed by foreign interests were behind the opposition.

“I don’t have any evidence but I guess you can put two and two together,” NDP MP Linda Duncan (Edmonton-Strathcona, Alta.) told The Hill Times.

“As someone just said to me, here comes McCarthyism,” Ms. Duncan said. She argued the government has in the past targeted civil-society groups that opposed its policies, including non-governmental agencies, women’s groups and social and cultural organizations.

“This has been a slow process since Harper took over, where they’ve been red-flagging a lot of credible organizations,” said Ms. Duncan.

Liberal MP Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.) said the budget attack against political activities by charities—there are more than 125 environmental charities listed on the Canada Revenue Agency’s online registry of charitable organizations—is “hypocritical.”

“It’s highly hypocritical for a government that has politicized every aspect of the public service in Canada, including government advertising, to accuse the charitable sector of being too political,” Mr. Brison told The Hill Times.

“There has never been a government that has politicized the operations of government as much as these guys,” he said.

“The one thing they didn’t cut is their quasi-partisan advertising, they haven’t cut the bloated ministers’ offices, which have grown exponentially, they haven’t cut the Prime Minister’s Office, which has grown madly under this government. This issue of attacking the charitable sector for being too political rings pretty hollow compared to how political this government has made every aspect of government,” Mr. Brison said.

The budget served notice the government intends to terminate the National Roundtable on the Environment, an advisory panel that advises the government on environmental policy through public discussion papers, cut Environment Canada spending by $88-million over the next three years and shorten the environmental review process for large projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline, handing some responsibility to provincial governments.

Despite its proposal to increase Canada Revenue Agency enforcement measures to monitor charities for their political activities, the budget proposes to cut the agency’s overall spending by $225 million over the next three years.

Opposition MPs said $79-million in cuts over the same period by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and $108-million in cuts at the Natural Resources Department will likely also affect environmental areas.

The budget did not include specific details about how the reductions will be made.

Original article on Hill Times website