Charities silenced by the taxman
TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/opinion
Published Wednesday, May. 16, 2012. Gerry Nicholls
If there’s any branch of the federal government that should top the “hate list” for Canadian conservatives it has to be the Canada Revenue Agency.
This is the agency, after all, that big government uses to painfully extract our hard-earned wealth – sometimes with bullying tactics – so that Bev Oda has the funds to buy more orange juice.
Yet strangely, the supposedly “conservative” Harper government is giving $8-million in additional funding to the CRA.
What’s going on here? Isn’t that like Hobbits giving arrows to Orcs? Or like New York Yankees fans cheering for the Boston Red Sox?
It just doesn’t make sense.
Nevertheless, it seems the Tories want to bolster the CRA’s muscle so it can more efficiently squelch free speech.
Well OK, that’s not really fair to the Conservatives.
What they really want is for the CRA to more thoroughly investigate charitable groups that are trying (horror of horrors) to sway public opinion.
Under our laws a registered charity is allowed to engage in what’s called non-partisan political activity only if the money spent represents no more than 10 per cent of its resources.
The Conservatives want more information to ensure charities are respecting the rules. The government, by the way, can suspend a group’s charitable status if it doesn’t get the information it wants or if it finds the group has exceeded the limits.
Why are the Tories so interested in charities engaging in political activity all of a sudden?
Well, it’s likely because certain charitable environmental groups have recently spent money in an attempt to turn Canadians against the government’s plan to build the Northern Gateway pipeline.
This opposition has made the Tories very unhappy.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, for instance, recently decried “environmental and other radical groups” whose opposition to the pipeline, he said, is undermining the national interest.
And so the Tories are unleashing their tax-law legions.
They also want to amend the Income Tax Act to introduce penalties for charities that exceed the limits on political activity or fail to report it.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says this is just standard operating procedure. As he put it, “What is incumbent upon all charities is that they respect the laws regarding political activities. Those laws are clear.”
Technically speaking, of course, the Prime Minister is right – the law is the law.
But what if the law is wrong?
And in this case, the law gagging charities is most definitely wrong because it infringes on free speech.
To put it another way, democracy would be better served if charities had more freedom to advance ideas and to debate issues.
Certainly, this would help ensure voters are better informed when it comes to policies. And more-informed voters make more-informed votes.
Mind you, this is something Mr. Harper should already understand. In fact, as a conservative, he should be ideologically opposed to government rules and regulations that only serve to stifle free expression.
In other words, he should be loosening rather than tightening the regulatory straitjacket constricting the rights of charities.
And yes, if he did this it would give charities that oppose his agenda more freedom to speak out. But at the same time it would also give charities that support his agenda more freedom to do the same.
In the end the side with the best ideas would prevail in the court of public opinion. That’s the way it should be in a democracy.
If none of my arguments has convinced you, consider this final point: Less-regulated charities should frighten you far less than a better-funded Canada Revenue Agency.
Gerry Nicholls is a communications consultant.
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