Some charities have similarities to the Roman orator Cicero. They are hated by one emperor but loved by another. The Trudeau Government’s announcement that it will scale back the political activity audits of charities by Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is good for charities and good for Canada. Good for charities because they will be encouraged to do charity and not worry about participating in the public debate for fear of a political audit. Canada will benefit from the expertise of groups on the ground who have innovative ideas on how best to help those in need.
A charity, by definition, cannot have a political purpose. That does not mean that what a charity does and what it says will not have a political consequence – invariably it will. Charities become politically salient only because their particular cause shows up on the political radar. It is through no fault of the charities. The political winds just happen to blow their way. Their charitable activity becomes the ‘cause célèbre du jour.’ For example, assisting refugees into Canada is not in itself a political activity. However, we are currently in a political context where refugees are a very political subject. So much so, that any involvement of a charity making a statement on the issue one way or another could be criticised. Statements supporting the plight of refugees may suddenly be deemed political or even partisan depending on the circumstance.
The Harper Government was concerned that environmental charities were receiving funding from foreign sources and were causing unnecessary havoc with the oil interests. In the March 2012 budget some $8 million was set aside for CRA to conduct random political audits on charities. While politicians were concerned about environmental charities the political audits, to be fair, had to have a broader target. Every charity was put on notice.
CRA recognizes that a charity may be involved in “political activities” as it carries out its charitable purposes. For example, a charity assisting the homeless may organize a protest at city hall to change a city anti-loitering by-law to protect the homeless from prosecution. “Political activities” means “any activity that … communicates to the public that a law … should be retained, opposed, or changed.” Charities are allowed to spend up to 10% of their “resources” on political activities.
While a charity can be involved in “political activities” it cannot take part in partisan activities, which means it cannot directly support or oppose a specific candidate or political party for public office or give money to a candidate or political party.
All of that makes sense. What didn’t make sense was creating a climate of unnecessary fear in the charitable sector. Charities seldom desire political involvement. That is the reality. With few exceptions they only want to carry out their charitable purpose. Politics, political activity, and partisanship is not what motivates charities or those that run them. It is all about the mission. Their charitable purpose is what they do and want accomplished – politics is always far removed from the central concept of mission. We need to encourage charities to speak out and be involved in public policy. It is time politicians recognize the positive contribution charities are making and the expertise they hold to improve public policy.
However, what we have seen in recent years is that partisan politics has politicized the charitable sector. Make no mistake, it was politics that created the political audit program to begin with and it was politics that caused the current government to remove it. The point is: let’s stop making charities the political football.
We need a political culture that respects the work of charities and is not insecure if a charity speaks publicly about a government policy change or legal development that interferes with the charity and its work. In other words, if a charity’s “toe” is stepped on by government policy why cannot the charity say “ouch”? It would be more advantageous in the long run to allow charities to use their expertise and participate in public dialogue on issues that directly affect them.
That means the political masters are to give charities the benefit of the doubt when they are involved in political activity. In other words, it should be a rebuttable presumption (with the onus on the government to prove otherwise) that the charities are only politically active for the furtherance of their charitable purposes. This would dramatically shift the focus but with long term benefits that will help the sector to move on from the atmosphere of fear of a CRA political audit.
Charities must be encouraged to participate in public policy. They are the Good Samaritans whose opinions we need. As to the political audit campaign – good riddance. It is a welcome change.