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Why The CRA Is No Longer An Effective Instrument of Public Policy

07/25/2014 05:38 EDT | Updated 09/24/2014 05:59 EDT

The Canada Revenue Agency needs to be audited by the citizens it is intended to serve. The CRA has lost its way. It has to be completely reassessed, and redesigned from top to bottom. And, then, after the 2015 federal election, serious changes should be made to its mandate, priorities, structure and operations.

Let's be clear about two things, though: First, all modern countries need a strong, professional tax regulator. Until the last few years, in fact, the CRA has been just that. Yes, it was rigid and traditional, even unimaginative, but it was also politically neutral and generally fair in its dealings with businesses, charities and individuals.

So, we've seen what a good tax agency looks like. We deserve to have one again. Second, the CRA is staffed by committed and skilled professionals who want to do a good job. They are our brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends. These public servants are valuable assets to Canada, and they will ensure that any renovated agency does its work effectively.

But now, with the activities of its charities section having been so thoroughly politicized by the Harper government, we can no longer call the CRA an effective instrument of public policy.

Its campaign of vexatious audits of the political activities of progressive charities has created a chill in political dissent, and is a new low even for the Conservative regime.

At the same time, CRA's Minister is musing about requiring charities to provide lists of their donors (in fact, this information is already available in the system, but you get the drift of the political messaging here). And there are even reports that, under the cover of the courts, the CRA can't qualify poverty reduction as a charitable objective. At a time of high unemployment in many parts of the country, rising income inequality and more, what could be more preposterous than disqualifying poverty reduction?

But that's not all.

Around the time of the ramping up of the campaign against the NGOs, the CRA actually cut hundreds of auditors who had been working on criminal investigations, special enforcement and voluntary disclosure programs.

And that decision actually came on the heels of CRA's Montreal office being embroiled in reports of corruption and ties between some of its former employees and known criminals. Whose priorities, actually, were these? Who made these decisions -- the Prime Minister's Office, the Minister responsible for the CRA, the Agency's senior management?

How much are these decisions driven or enabled by the Board of Management appointed by the Conservatives and chaired by a self-described fiscal hawk.

(There's nothing wrong with being a fiscal hawk if you apply the same hawkish standards towards the very rich, big corporations and organized crime that you do toward left-wing charities.) So, right now, to say the least, we don't have the tax agency we want or need. With a new government in place after the 2015 federal election, big changes can and should be made to the CRA.

In the meantime, there are five important things we can do:

1) Express solidarity with the charities that are targeted for political audits by taking out memberships and making donations.

2) Support the building of a coalition against the political audits and for a court challenge to the government.

3) Prepare questions for the Minister and leadership of the CRA as to who made the critical decisions over the past few years, and why -- on the charities issue, and also on the criminal investigations issue.

4) Develop a plan for completely overhauling the unit that deals with charities.

5) And work with the opposition parties on a detailed, post-2015 plan for rebuilding Canada's tax agency into an institution of which Canadians, including its own staff, will once again be proud.

These steps don't constitute a full citizens' audit, but they're a start.

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