Monday, December 26, 2011

Corporations Vs Charities

Anthony Britneff

In British Columbia, a province rich in natural resources, a large disparity exists between corporations and charities in the amount of funding and time that each may devote to engaging in discussions of public policy. This disparity is undermining the public interest.

Why should you care about who influences British Columbia’s resource policy? It is you who own 94 per cent of the land and all the freshwater. Thus you, the public, are the principal stakeholders with the largest vested interest.

When it comes to influencing government in Ottawa and Victoria about resource policy some of you may think that charities carry the most weight but their financial influence is minuscule compared to that of corporations.

It is not that charities are not influential, but only that the funding and time they are able to devote to discussing public policy is not commensurate with that of corporations.  They are actually restricted from devoting more than 10 per cent of their resources to matters of public policy. Corporations, however, are unrestricted except for the registration of lobbyists; and the funding and time they may spend on the lobbying of legislators, advertising and publicity is also unlimited.

Unlike corporations, charities cannot fund political candidates, endorse political parties or deduct expenses related to policy advocacy against tax. Also, they have to seek money from foundations and individuals.

Given the harmful disparity between the power and influence of corporations and charities, federal and provincial governments need to amend the law in order to achieve parity. For instance:

1.   By raising fees both provincially and federally for corporate lobbyists by tens of millions of dollars and redistributing those fees to charities thereby increasing their capacity to access legislators.
2.   By increasing the percentage amount of the funding and time that charities can devote to discussing and influencing public policy.
3.   By eliminating donations to, and endorsements of, political parties and candidates by corporations and industrial associations.

Some of you may already be saying, “Charities are special interest groups and are not representative of the general public”. But is that really the case?

Charities are just as much special interest groups as industrial associations. Both have members that are stakeholders and both engage in public policy discussions in the interests of their membership. Industrial associations are no more representative of the general public than are charities.  

In British Columbia, some government officials have gone much further than engaging representatives of corporations in the discussion of public policy and the review of draft laws.  In one instance, industrial legal representatives participated actively with public servants in the writing of resource laws and regulations thereby undermining the democratic responsibility of government to represent all citizens and possibly compromising the impartiality of public servants to act in the public interest.  

In general, corporate private interest in the influencing of public policy and in the exploitation of natural resources tends to affect adversely the environment, social justice and respect for indigenous rights, all of which are policy concerns encompassed by charities.

Added to these policy concerns, the world’s financial system that drives corporate growth has become unstable. It depends upon perpetual economic growth at the expense of the natural world resulting in the consumption of the Earth’s resources beyond the capacity of the carbon cycle to supply fossil fuels and to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Consequently, climate change is compounding the damage resource corporations do to the environment by changing the natural world, by disrupting the availability of food, by making clean freshwater ever scarcer, and by displacing indigenous groups, even in Canada.  

Yet, Canada still has reasons for optimism in dealing with climate change and in preventing harm to environmental and human health through the exploitation of resources. To ensure that legislators improve resource laws and policies they need to hear and discuss not only the economic perspective of private interests but also perspectives on the environment, social justice and indigenous rights, all of which are public interests that charities collectively work to advance.

So what can you do to curb the excessive power and financial influence of resource corporations? You can write or talk to your MLA and MP.  You could also make a new year’s resolution to join, or donate to, a charity or other non-governmental organization that will champion your policy concerns, values and beliefs, which corporations and industrial organizations disregard. 

Anthony Britneff had a 40-year career with the B.C. Forest Service. He was inspired to write this article by the need in British Columbia for an integrated energy and climate-change policy and for improved provincial laws regulating forestry, oil and gas, and especially water. This article previously published by Victoria Times Colonist

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