A new report from the Broadbent Institute is raising questions once again about the political activity audits conducted by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and whether or not the agency has unfairly focused on charities with missions that don’t align with the interests of the federal government.
The report finds nine out of 10 prominent right-wing charities claimed zero per cent of their budgets were used for political activity in the most recent fiscal year. The final filing for the tenth organization has yet to be submitted or made public by the CRA.
The report is an update of a similar October 2014 investigation, which discovered all 10 charitable organizations reported zero political activities between 2011 and 2013. That investigation led the Broadbent Institute to call for an independent inquiry into the CRA’s audits to ensure charities under investigation aren’t the target of political attack.
The new report, which reviews the 2014 filings of the 10 organizations in light of their public activities, renews calls for an independent inquiry “to ensure transparency and fairness in the CRA’s decision-making.”
Under CRA rules, charities are allowed to spend up to 10 per cent of the organization’s time and money on "political activities," which the CRA defines as any activity that seeks to change, oppose or retain laws or policies.
According to the Broadbent Institute, many of the public activities undertaken by the organizations in question, which include the Fraser Institute and Focus on the Family, appear to meet the definition of political activity.
For example, in September 2014, Marco Navarro-Genie, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies published an opinion piece in the Chronicle Herald that discouraged governments from banning fracking, saying the move “closes opportunities for greater innovation…and the development of more employment.”
“Prohibition is the wrong impulse,” he wrote.
The report also cites the example of Macdonald-Laurier Institute managing director Brian Lee Crowley, who in July 2014 argued the federal government should “assert its power to sweep away barriers to trade created by the provinces” in the Globe and Mail.
Other groups investigated in the Broadbent report are: C.D.Howe Institute, the Montreal Economic Institute, Canadian Constitution Foundation, Energy Probe Research Foundation, and Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
“The examples cited are only some of the many possible examples of political activity in which these groups engaged,” Jonathan Sas, Broadbent Institute director of research and author of the report, writes. “The juxtaposition calls into question how these charities interpret the restrictions on engaging in 'political activity' and why, if these groups are engaging in political activity, as defined by the CRA, the agency continues to allow them to report zero per cent.”
So far, at least 52 charities have been the target of the CRA’s $13.4 million audit program, which began in 2012.
Environmental Defence, the David Suzuki Foundation, Equiterre, Pen Canada, Canada Without Poverty, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Ecology Action Centre have all been subjected to investigation and audit since the program began.
The report found current rules around the issue of political activity are confusing and create an “intolerable state of uncertainty.”
The report called on the federal government to clarify rules about what constitutes political activity and to loosen the 10 per cent rule on allowable limits.
The Broadbent Institute report confirms the broad discrepancies in how charities view reporting requirements around political activities.
“This report makes clear that the CRA rules around political activity are interpreted, to put it charitably, quite differently by many right-leaning charities,” Sas concluded in the report.