Published by Senator Robert Peterson (retired) on 28 May 2012
"Foreign radicals," "money launderers," and individuals who would "take money from Al Qaeda, the Hamas or the Taliban." These are not references from an enquiry into drug cartels or terrorism, these are just a few of the choice words that have rolled carelessly off of the tongues of government ministers and Senators describing registered charities.
While the government's language is clearly inflammatory and divisive, it is not without purpose. The government's war of words' is aimed primarily at environmental charities, some of which have been active in the stakeholder review process for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. Changes in the C-38 Omnibus Budget Bill would render the review process essentially meaningless. By labelling environmental charities as "radical groups," the government is attempting to create a boogeyman which, they hope, will divert the public eye away from changes to environmental legislation currently steamrolling through Parliament.
According to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), charitable organizations are permitted to conduct political advocacy, as long as it does not exceed 10 per cent of overall activities and is non-partisan. Groups involved in the review process, even those that question the legitimacy of pipeline construction, are therefore technically within their legal purview. However, the government has also lashed out at foreign donors to environmental groups such as Tides Canada. Tides, it turns out, also finances groups as "radical" as Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
Proposed amendments to the Income Tax Act, as well as increased funding of $8-million over the next two years for the CRA, will theoretically give the CRA the tools to investigate both of these interests. But as the saying goes, a double-edged sword cuts both ways. Changes to the CRA, as well as the government's increasingly verbose choice of words are likely to have a number of unintended consequences.
During recent testimony to the House Standing Finance Committee, prominent charity lawyer, Michael Blumberg, noted that there would most likely be a chill' on charitable giving. Individuals and foundations may be worried about giving to particular organizations, while charitable organizations across all sectors, often unaware of the extent of the charity legislation, will likely be worried about properly adhering to the 10 per cent rule. At a time when charitable giving is reaching a record low, this could have a major impact on charities, particularly small and medium-sized groups that rely on a select few donors.
On the other hand, groups like the David Suzuki Foundation that have been under fire over the last few weeks, are receiving positive feedback from individuals that have not traditionally been part of the organization. The attacks have also created a common ground for the charitable sector. On June 4, 2012, some of the most prominent environmental charitable organizations will act in unity to black out their websites. This will be a response to what they see as a concerted government attack against the environment and against the charitable sector more generally.
What was formerly a fragmented and unruly coalition of charities is now a well-oiled, well-connected, and well-motivated campaign.
Proposed changes to the CRA rules could also have a negative impact on church groups and think tanks which, arguably, conduct political activities.' Although it is hard to say what percentage of the $8-million will actually be used for investigating political activity, the CRA is an independent body and could just as easily sanction an Evangelical pastor praising government legislation, as it could a group such as the Suzuki Foundation.
While changes to the CRA may not necessarily alter the CRA's toolkit, increased awareness of the issue may increase the number of requests for audits from the average citizen and, ultimately, increase the workload of the CRA.
With toxic charitable schemes ranging around the $300-million mark for lost revenue every year, the CRA has bigger fish to fry. It is unlikely that any radical' environmental groups will face any real sanctions. Increased money for oversight will likely go towards investigating legitimate fraudulent cases and towards investigating new requests for audits. This would include requests for audits submitted by the right-of-centre group, Ethical Oil, which allegedly submitted a request for an audit of the Tides group. It would be interesting to determine how much of the taxpayers' dime will get tied up in that process.
Perhaps the government should think twice the next time it picks a fight that could end up affecting thousands of charities and the volunteers and employees which they staff. The "war of words" is coming off as sloppy, misguided and, in some cases, borderline slanderous. It is shameful that this government would risk hurting the charitable sector to score a couple of cheap political points. The only thing achieved by a smear campaign will be diverting public attention away from the work of legitimate organizations conducting legitimate philanthropy.
Liberal Saskatchewan Senator Robert Peterson retires Oct. 19, 2012 from the Senate.