BY DAVID J. CLIMENHAGA
Other than Canadian political parties themselves, the Fraser Institute must be Canada's most intensely political organization.
Notwithstanding its pious mission statement -- "to measure, study, and communicate the impact of competitive markets and government interventions on the welfare of individuals" -- essentially 100 per cent of the Fraser Institute's activities are 100-per-cent political.
As such, the far-right, market fundamentalist "think tank" plays a key role in what author Donald Gutstein terms the "corporate propaganda system" that purports to churn out unbiased research but in fact works tirelessly to hijack our democracy for the benefit of Big Business and the ultra-wealthy families that control it.
The Fraser Institute strives to change Canadians' political attitudes so they will place far-right political parties like Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives in power, and keep them there. It works relentlessly to restructure our political architecture in ways that will make it difficult for citizens to seize back their own country. And it fields an army of "former researchers" -- Danielle Smith, leader of the far-right Wildrose Party here in Alberta is a prominent example -- who play an overtly political role.
Nor is there much that is fair or scientific about the Fraser Institute's research, despite the claim it is subject to "a rigorous peer review process." Saskatoon health policy consultant Stephen Lewis brilliantly deconstructs the Grade 9 methodology behind the "institute's" annual report on hospital wait times and exposes it as "skewed estimates on a hot-button issue," retailed as hard data, and intended "to lure Canadians to the promised land of private medicine."
"Never mind the 16-per-cent response rate in 2011, which alone cashiers validity," Lewis writes of the Fraser Institute's effort. "Even more fundamentally, the questionnaire asks respondents for neither the sources of their estimates, nor whether they consult any real data to support their responses."
So, as Nova Scotia Finance Minister Graham Steele put it: "The Fraser Institute produces junk. It is not a serious institution. It is a political organization."
Steele was two-thirds right. The Fraser Institute is serious all right, although its research is not serious in the normal sense of transparency and lack of bias, no matter what it claims. But it surely is political. Indeed, the Fraser Institute is all politics, all the time.
As it turns out, this is important, because the Fraser Institute is also a registered charity, meaning that those Canadians who do pay taxes are in effect subsidizing its purely political operations. Indeed, to go a step further, we are also subsidizing those wealthy individuals, organizations and corporations that bankroll the Fraser Institute's propaganda efforts to work directly against the interests of ordinary Canadians.
Alert readers will be aware that charitable status for organizations that take controversial positions on the issues of that day is currently a highly contentious issue -- at least when the registered charities in question do not support the Harper government on such issues as bitumen pipelines to the West Coast, climate science and uncontrolled oilsands development.
So, for example, Charles Adler, Canada's self-styled "everyman" and a bloviator for Canada's real state broadcaster, the Sun (Non)News Network, columnized last month about how "there's no shortage of radical greens getting generous tax breaks from the federal government."
"Under the law," Adler opined, "these supposed charities can only spend 10 per cent of their budget on advocacy activities. I'll leave it to you to judge whether these radicals are obeying this law."
Others on the government side of this debate take a more extreme view. An email now in circulation originating somewhere within the Online Tory Rage Machine accuses an Alberta-based environmental group of being part of a "treasonous and underhanded" conspiracy "to destroy our Alberta oil industry."
And last month, the Globe and Mail reported that the Commons Finance Committee's review of the charitable sector is expected to attack the charitable status of Canadian environmental organizations.
So it is interesting that when it comes to one of Canada's most intensely political organizations, which boasts on its website about the controversial nature of the positions it takes, its charitable status passes uncontested among these same far-right actors, including the ones in government.
Now, the Canada Revenue Agency's rules governing political activities by charitable organizations are not quite as clear-cut as Adler makes them sound, but he has the gist of it right. Depending on their annual income in the previous year, registered charities may contribute between 12 and 20 per cent of their resources to political activities in the current year.
However, "a registered charity cannot be created for a political purpose and cannot be involved in partisan political activities," the CRA states. "A political activity is considered partisan if it involves direct or indirect support of, or opposition to, a political party or candidate for office."
Elsewhere, the CRA goes on to define political activities quite broadly, including the following: "explicitly communicates to the public that the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country should be retained (if the retention of the law, policy or decision is being reconsidered by a government), opposed, or changed…" The CRA even defines as political activities as "attempts to sway public opinion on social issues."
So, obviously, from any common sense position, the Fraser Institute fails to meet this broad test and clearly should lose its charitable status.
When a charity files its annual income statement with the Canada Revenue Agency, it is always asked: "Did the charity carry on any political activities during the fiscal period." Yet in each year between 2000 and 2010, according to a recent Access to Information request by the Alberta Federation of Labour, the Fraser Institute answered "No."
"Any rookie observer of Canadian politics knows this is nonsense," the AFL wrote in its Jan. 17 submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance on Tax Incentives for Charitable Donations. "The Fraser Institute is actively involved in the Canadian political landscape. Any reporting or suggestion otherwise is a sham."
In 2010, for example, the Fraser Institute explicitly communicated to the public calls for laws to be changed, thereby engaging in politics as defined by the CRA. So the Fraser Institute column, "Reject Unions and Prosper," which was published on Sept. 10, 2010, urged Canadian provinces to adopt "right-to-work" laws typical of those U.S. states south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
"Provinces would do well to adopt worker-choice laws (called right-to-work laws in the United States), which would allow workers to choose whether they want to join and financially support a union," the article, which is found on the Fraser Institute's website, states.
Clearly this article meets the standard for political activity set by the CRA. There is no shortage of similar examples.
Indeed, one day after last year's federal election, in which the political party clearly backed by the Fraser Institute won a majority, they were at it again, pushing Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative Party to change Canada's election spending laws to eliminate all per-vote subsidies for political parties.
So, never mind why the media treats the Fraser Institute's dubious findings with such respect, the question most often asked about this organization. That seems obvious enough considering who owns the media.
A better question is: Given its responses to the CRA, can Canadians have any confidence that the Fraser Institute is staying within the 12 per cent of its allowed limit for political activities?
Moreover, it is fair to wonder: Is anyone at the Canada Revenue Agency paying attention or even raising concerns about the Fraser Institute's constant political activities, let alone questioning its charitable status?
As Adler said, "I'll leave it to you to judge whether these radicals are obeying this law."