Conservative MPs rejected an NDP request for hearings into federal audits of Canadian charities, dismissing the motion as a "shameful" effort to tarnish the Canada Revenue Agency's independence.
The opposition NDP and Liberals wanted the House of Commons Finance Committee to hear from Canadian charities who say they have faced cumbersome audits focused on whether they are in violation of federal limits on political activity.
Opposition MPs said the audits suggest that critics of the government, particularly in the environmental sector, are being targeted. The opposition accused Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay of being silent on the issue and said hearings would provide the minister with an opportunity to comment.
Conservative MP Gerald Keddy, who is Ms. Findlay's parliamentary secretary and is also a member of the finance committee, rejected suggestions that CRA audits are politically motivated.
"No one is being targeted," Mr. Keddy told reporters following the meeting. "I think it's shameful, absolutely shameful. The idea that professional men and women who work within CRA in an arm's length auditing process, maintaining the integrity of the system, could somehow fall under political influence is simply wrong."
NDP MP Murray Rankin triggered a special summer meeting of the committee in order to present a motion calling for hearings on the issue. The committee dealt with the request behind closed doors and MPs are not allowed to disclose what happened inside. The NDP MP emerged from the meeting to say he was disappointed with the outcome.
Mr. Rankin said the government must "clear the air" in response to suggestions that political activity audits are directed at critics of the Conservatives.
"You'd think they would want this kind of opportunity given the serious allegations that are made," said Mr. Rankin.
The 2012 federal budget included $8-million in new funding for the CRA that was specifically earmarked to increase political activity audits of charities. The CRA has said that so far, that money has funded the audit of 52 charities and 12 of those cases are now closed. The CRA has said it cannot identify the subjects of the audit. The Canadian Press has published a partial list that includes several groups that have been vocal critics of the Conservative government policy, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Equiterre, Environmental Defence Canada Inc. and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
"Have there been other, more conservative-aligned charities that are being targeted?" asked Mr. Rankin. "I don't know. I want to clear the air. If they have an explanation, this is the place for it."
Charities are not allowed to participate in partisan activities – such as endorsing a political party or candidate. However federal rules allow charities to spend about 10 per cent of resources on "political activity," which includes campaigns in support of particular public policy options.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail last month, Cathy Hawara, the director-general of the CRA's charities directorate, insisted the agency is taking a balanced approach in deciding which entities to audit.
"We are not targeting charities that have particular political leanings," she said.