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Revenue agency gives right-wingers a pass while harassing progressives: new study

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The Harper government's attack on "progressive" charities began as an effort to defend the Keystone XL pipeline proposal (and the oil sands, more generally).

In 2012, Joe Oliver, who was then Natural Resources Minister, wrote an open letter attacking environmental organizations opposed to the pipeline. He said they wanted to turn Canada into a "vast national park."

To nail home his point, the Minister added the accusation that some of those organizations were funded by foreign "billionaire socialists."

Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton picked up the ball and initiated a Senate 'inquiry' into the foreign connections of Canadian environmental groups.

Then, not long afterward, the supposedly non-political Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) got into the act. The government gave the CRA special funds to investigate organizations with tax-free charitable status, with a view to assuring that they do not devote more than the legal limit of 10 per cent to advocacy activities.

Perhaps not surprisingly, virtually all of the organizations investigated, from the Suzuki Foundation to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, have been on the "progressive" side of the political fence.

There are plenty of charitable entities on the right -- from the Fraser Institute to the Canadian Constitution Foundation. None, as far as anyone can tell, have attracted the intense interest of the CRA.

The Broadbent Institute has just issued a study of 10 of these right-leaning charities, which found, amazingly, that all claim they devote zero per cent of their resources to political activity. Not one penny; not one day.

The folks at Broadbent then looked at the published work of these organizations and found multiple examples of what looks a lot like political advocacy. As the old saying goes: If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

Here is one example the Broadbent study uncovered, from the Canadian Constitution Foundation, whose stated mandate is "to protect the constitutional freedoms of Canadians through education, communication and litigation":

"Canada's Constitution guarantees citizens the right to security of the person. Crown attorneys need to recognize that historically and empirically, security sometimes necessitates the right to armed self-defence."

There are many more examples that you can find in the Broadbent Institute report.

Not all of them are quite as outrageous as the claim that what we need in Canada is an American-style right to bear arms (which has worked out really well for our neighbours south of the border, hasn't it?). But many of the examples the study cites do suggest that these organizations do not merely do good work or neutral research. They also advocate in favour of private sector, family or extractive industry-friendly policies.

There is nothing wrong with that. Progressive organizations engage in similar advocacy for the environment, the poor and for public sector solutions.

What is wrong is that one kind of group gets investigated while the other does not.

In question period on Tuesday, the NDP's Guy Caron and Murray Rankin asked Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Finlay about this apparently unequal treatment. Rankin put it this way:

"We have seen the Conservatives go after environmentalists, human rights groups, international development groups and yes, even bird-watchers -- pretty well anyone who may disagree with them. However, a new report suggests that right-wing charities get a different ride. Annual filings from 10 right-wing charities showed no political activities on their part; none, in spite of the fact that their websites are full of advocacy. Can the minister explain this double standard?"

In response, Finlay directly quoted the official who oversees the CRA's charities directorate: "The process for identifying which charities will be audited for any reason is handled by the directorate itself and is not subject to political direction."

She then went on to try to scold her NDP critic, saying: "It is shameful that this member and his party are using their own political agenda over the backs of hard-working public..." It seems she had run over her allotted time at this point, however, and the Speaker cut her off.

It is understandable that senior CRA officials should vigorously defend the agency against the charge of political interference.

And, factually, the statement by the charities directorate boss may be entirely accurate. It is entirely plausible that the CRA has received no direct instructions from the Harper government.

What is more likely is that at least some of the CRA folks who do the auditing have internalized the worldview of the current government -- a view that sees caring about poverty as, somehow, ideological, and supporting the interests of private business as entirely neutral and non-political.

That may be even scarier than the notion of direct interference from the governing party.

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