Robyn Benson, PSAC

Politicization of the CRA?


Should the Canada Revenue Agency be used for partisan political purposes?

Revenue Canada became part of the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency in 1999, and it took its current form as the Canada Revenue Agency in December 2003. Its unique culture and type of work suited it for separate employer status, or so the government of the day said: but more recently, it lost a considerable amount of its independence when it came under the direct control of Treasury Board for the purposes of collective bargaining.

Almost needless to say, the PSAC and its Component, the Union of Taxation Employees, were not consulted about this major change. It was simply imposed in 2012 through one of those omnibus bills the government is so fond of.

But this loss of independence now seems to be showing itself in other ways. I have already blogged about the growing politicization of the public service by the Harper administration. That reach seems to be extending into the day-to-day work of the CRA, as several organizations promoting environmental responsibility are at this moment being audited for allegedly spending more than the allowed 10% of their budgets on activities deemed to be “political.” And they aren’t alone: the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a well-respected progressive think-tank, is being audited as well. As people familiar with the auditing process know, it’s a long, cumbersome one that takes up much time and energy.

It really doesn’t pay, it appears, to defend the environment against Alberta oil sands development, or to take other stands that the government doesn’t like. Information control is a priority for the Harper administration. If you are a scientist in today’s public service, for example, you are effectively silenced: red tape has become duct tape. Meanwhile, the government avoids its environmental responsibilities to the point of breaking the law.

There is evidence that some of the current audits are being carried out after complaints received from a pro-tar sands organization called Ethical Oil, whose own funding sources are a closely-guarded secret. Note that the founder of Ethical Oil, Alykhan Velshi, is now employed in the Prime Minister’s office as director of issues management.

This kind of political targeting is everybody’s problem. I, for one, object to public agencies like the CRA being used to bully government critics. The public service is supposed to be fair and impartial, not a political weapon used to intimidate and subdue Canadians who have policy differences with the Harper administration. And how downright irresponsible of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, in the midst of these auditing revelations, to suggest that the charities involved might be involved in “terrorism”. This is pure McCarthyism. Charities should be forgiven at this point for feeling terrorized themselves.

Speaking of “political,” though, what exactly is “political activity” by charities and non-profit organizations (which are targeted in the new budget)? We do have CRA language on the subject, but political interference is threatening its ability to be objective on that score. As noted, environmental charities and at least one progressive non-profit organization are now under the gun, but we’ve heard nothing to suggest that (for example) the highly political Fraser Institute is undergoing the same kind of scrutiny.

Obviously what’s going on isn’t a case of random spot-checking, but what certainly appears to be politically determined. Private charities are forbidden from engaging in partisan politics: surely it’s even more important that the government stop using the public service for partisan ends.

[Photo Credit: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press]

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on February 20, 2014 9:48 AM.

Fair elections, Conservative style (part 2) was the previous entry in this blog.

Budget 2014: universal health care under attack is the next entry in this blog.

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