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Not just unions: Time to consider fiscal openness for professional associations, private companies, think-tanks, churches

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It's not just unions any more.

The more I think about this, the more the idea makes sense: the time has come to shine a bright light on the fiscal operations of all organizations to which Canadian citizens must pay dues in order to work, as well as on all those that benefit from taxpayer-paid subsidies, enjoy charitable status or attempt to influence public policy.

We can do this by passing laws in Parliament and in our provincial legislatures requiring minimum public financial reporting standards for several categories of organization that do business with public funds, represent members who must join in order to be able to work or otherwise take advantage of public funding.

The financial reporting requirements faced by corporations whose shares trade publicly on the stock markets should be the model for the degree of fiscal transparency required.

Entities subjected to these reporting requirements should include:

-    Organizations like the bar, medical, engineering and other professional associations that members must join in order to practice in their fields
-    Private corporations that receive any form of subsidy paid by taxpayers
-    Private corporations that bid on any publicly financed contract
-    Any corporation or organization that exists for the purpose of influencing public policy, including lobbying firms and "think-tanks" not associated with public institutions, which have their own reporting requirements
-    Associations of corporations, businesses or individuals that by definition try to influence public policy and trade practices
-    Churches and religious organizations that raise funds for other than purely spiritual matters, including the operation of chartable, educational or public policy institutions
-    Any organization that can give charitable tax receipts for donations
-    Unions

And if this idea started with right-wing groups -- including several of the groups on this list -- as a way to poke a stick in the eye of trade unions, which are about the only group left other than the few remaining Occupy campers willing to stand up to the modern state's corporatist agenda, well, so be it!

One of the points raised by advocates of applying this kind of fiscal transparency to unions is that they receive "hundreds of millions of dollars of benefits" from the government of Canada and the provinces.

This is certainly less true of unions than every other group on the list above -- including churches, which enjoy tax-free status on the basis they are engaged solely in spiritual matters. Nevertheless, in many cases they actively lobby their members to vote in a particular way and to take specific stands on many public policy issues.

Public reporting of private corporations' books would bring a welcome end to the excuse used by democratically elected governments in Canada and elsewhere to avoid providing the details of P3s and other publicly financed contracts with private corporations on the grounds they would expose private business dealings.

This argument would be moot if private corporations hoping to benefit from public largess were required to report their revenues, earnings and activities anyway -- to the enormous benefit of taxpayers in the area of deciding how best to finance public projects and activities.

The rule should be a simple one: If you want public money, you must open your books.

Moreover, the benefits are again clear in the case of groups established with the sole purpose of influencing public policy -- such as think tanks and lobbying firms. Surely the public is entitled to a reasonable degree of fiscal transparency from such groups. If nothing else, we would finally get to see who finances these often-secretive organizations, which would assist us in assigning appropriate value to their arguments in the free marketplace of ideas.

It makes even more sense when you consider that many of these groups, like the propagandistic Fraser Institute for example, are legally entitled to "charitable status" so that wealthy donors can enjoy a further break on their taxes for supporting an organization dedicated to the principle rich people shouldn't have to pay taxes!

As I have said in this space before, while not required by law to do so, many unions already publish their complete audited financial results and distribute them to 100 per cent of their membership, either by mail or over the Internet. I worked for such an organization for more than a decade, and other than the cost of paying for an independent audit, nothing but benefits flowed from that practice.

Regardless, this is an idea that is now on the public agenda, and it's time that progressive members of society start talking about the need for fiscal transparency among all these entities.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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