Bruce Edwards postmedia news Thursday’s federal budget puts Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on a collision course with environmental groups that are waging an intense battle against the oilsands sector as well as new official opposition leader Thomas Mulcair.
The Harper government’s budget tossed roses to Western Canada’s natural resource-based economy on Thursday and lobbed a political grenade at the environmental movement.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced a long-promised blueprint to streamline the environmental review process, but a starkly different message was sent to environmental groups that are waging an intense battle against the oilsands sector.
The budget commits $8 million over the next two years to help the Canadian Revenue Agency target registered charities that the government believes are too overtly political.
The money will be used to “improve transparency by requiring charities to provide more information on their political activities, including the extent to which these are funded by foreign sources,” according to budget documents.
One federal official said $3 million of the $8 million will go to “education and compliance,” with the “lion’s share” of that $3 million to cover the cost of stepped-up audits.
Flaherty’s speech described Canada’s natural resources as a “massive” asset, with the oil and gas, mining and forestry sectors employing roughly 750,000 Canadians and driving economic growth across the country.
The budget puts Flaherty on a collision course not only with the environmental movement, but also with the new official Opposition leader, Thomas Mulcair.
Mulcair has said Canada’s high petro-dollar, fuelled by federal government policies to artificially prop up the oilsands industry, are ruining Canada’s manufacturing sector, located primarily in central Canada.
The budget also proposes to eliminate a key federal advisory panel on business and environmental issues which is headed by David McLaughlin.
The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, originally established in the 1990s to advise the prime minister, regularly produced reports that challenged the business and en-vironmental policies of the government, particularly regarding climate change.
The budget is also proposing to invest $60 million over two years for a few environmental initiatives, including about $2 million in funding to encourage clean energy generation and $50 million over two years in resources to support its legal obligation to protect species at risk.
The new spending comes as Ottawa is reducing budgets at Environment Canada – as well as other related investments on environmental protection and research – by hundreds of millions of dollars, while maintaining several exploration and development tax incentives for the oil and gas sector that Flaherty’s department recommended eliminating in a secret memo that was leaked in 2010.
Quebec environment groups panned the budget, charging it makes huge concessions to the oil and gas industry, and severely limits the public’s ability to speak up on large projects that have environmental and human health impacts.
“In a budget that seems to have been written for, and even by, big oil interests, the Harper government is gutting the environmental protections that Canadians have depended on for decades to safeguard our families and nature from pollution, toxic contamination and other environmental problems,” said Steven Guilbeault, deputy director of Montreal-based Équiterre.
“Changing the rules to favour oil companies and projects that elicit outrage among the people is an affront to democracy,” said Nicolas Mainville, a spokesperson for Greenpeace in Quebec. “Quebecers and Canadians have a right to oppose and question these pipeline projects that threaten the public good, their health and that of the planet.”
David Sawyer, an environmental economist who specializes in climate change policy, has estimated that the exploration and development subsidies are costing taxpayers $1.3 billion per year, while encouraging more pollution and emissions that cause global warming.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has defended the incentives, citing a study co-authored by a board member of Imperial Oil, which concluded that the sector was not getting special treatment.
Mike De Souza of Postmedia News and Michelle Lalonde of The Gazette contributed to this report
Senate continues inquiry into foreign funding of charities in Canada
Conservatives in the Senate want to change the tax laws regarding environmental groups in Canada who protest energy projects.
According to a senior Conservative, any group that protests developing Alberta’s oilsands should lose its charitable status.
“It should never be considered a charitable act to attack Canada’s oilsands,” said Senator Doug Finley in his speech as part of an inquiry into foreign foundations providing money to Canadian charities.
The inquiry was launched last week by Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton and is essentially a take note debate — a series of speeches by Conservative senators who are raising questions about how U.S. foundations are funnelling money into Canadian charities.
The Senate is focussing particularly on environmental charities, claim these charities use foreign money to protest everything from fish farming to expansion of the oilsands industry.
‘Shady foreign money’
Finley, who is the former national campaign director for the federal Conservative Party, says that foreign funding is undermining Canada’s economy.
“Shady foreign money is being used to influence Canadian domestic and commercial policy in an obscure fashion,” he told the Senate Tuesday.
“U.S. charitable foundations which may perhaps have their own economic and market driven agenda, are contributing major dollars to pseudo and radical environmental groups in Canada.”
Finley used the example of the foundation Tides Canada, which provides money to 230 charities in Canada to work on environmental issues. He claims groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace have used that money to fund their “tarsands campaigns.”
“For some perverse reason, Tides and other multi-billion-dollar foreign foundations see it as a more effective investment to adversely disrupt Canada’s economy than to contribute to other more needy parts of the world,” said Finley.
Finley says that all charities should have to disclose where they get their money and how they spend it. Right now charities, including environmental groups, can write off donations on their taxes. They are allowed to spend up to 10 per cent of that money on such activities as protests.
They see the Senate inquiry as an attempt to muzzle opposition to big energy projects, and Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell agrees with them.
He says environmental groups play an important role in reflecting the concerns of a sizable portion of the public. He warns against any change to the tax law that would treat environmental charities differently than others.
“Which dictator would say it’s okay for this group to participate with its charitable status in public policy debate and it’s not okay for this group to take part in a public policy debate? And what would the difference be? The difference would be whether or not that group would take the side the government likes…and that would be a fundamental problem,” said Mitchell.
The Senate inquiry could eventually lead to changes in the Canada Revenue Act, which would still have to be approved by the House of Commons.