Recent columns by Andrew Coyne and Joe Oliver have portrayed a world where, if the federal government acts on recommendations concerning “political activity” by registered charities, radical special interest groups will run wild using taxpayer subsidies. The truth is much more anodyne.
First of all, we need to be clear about the Canada Revenue Agency definition of political activity. Many people equate the word “political” with “partisan.” Charities are prohibited from engaging in partisan activity. The panel supports this prohibition, as does the sector.
Political activity also does not include direct interaction with politicians. Charities are free to meet with elected representatives and public servants, to make submissions to committees and tribunals, and provide public policy advice – so long as the issues they engage in are directly related to their charitable purpose.
By and large, political activity refers to charities engaging the public in their efforts – such as launching a petition or a letter-writing campaign – or informing the public about their position on a particular issue.
In their columns, Messrs. Coyne and Oliver actually display a fundamental misunderstanding of the CRA definition of political activity. If individuals with their experience and expertise have difficulty understanding or expressing that definition, this in and of itself speaks to the need for greater clarity that the advisory panel has called for.
I would like to address what seem to be the major issues that trouble Messrs. Coyne and Oliver.
Both writers express a concern that the reforms recommended by the advisory panel would open the door to advocacy organizations that don’t engage in what the writers deem charitable activity. The current definition of charity, based on centuries of jurisprudence, precludes the registration of an organization with a “political purpose” as a charity. It also allows the CRA to strip charitable status from an organization that morphs into such an entity. The panel has reiterated that this distinction should be maintained, and we agree with doing so.
Both authors imply that charities, by and large, support one particular political point of view. This does a disservice to the thousands of organizations, and millions of volunteers from all walks of life, that make up an incredibly broad and diverse sector. This diversity increases the value of charities’ contributions to public policy. Regardless of how one might perceive an individual charity’s “position” on the political spectrum, we are all required by law to ground our policy activities in fact, reason, and the public interest. No other sector faces such a requirement.
The authors focus on charities’ ability to issue tax receipts, implying that this forces Canadians to indirectly subsidize views they don’t agree with. While Mr. Coyne acknowledges the political donation tax credit creates a similar philosophical conundrum, neither author mentions that private sector entities can write off an unlimited amount of spending on lobbying and advocacy, thus also imposing a cost on taxpayers. Any discussion of the tax regime “forcing” people to subsidize policy discussion needs to examine all sectors, not just charities.
Indeed, society itself is a trade-off. Through the taxes we pay, and through the governments we elect, all of us contribute towards policies and programs from which we don’t personally benefit, and with which we might disagree. That’s democracy. The alternative to these tradeoffs – and the logical extension of the authors’ argument – is actually the chaos that they both seem to fear.
Finally, the authors imply that donors would be perturbed to learn that charities use a small portion of their resources for public policy work. Let’s take the example of smoke-free public spaces – a radical idea when charities started advocating on the issue. We would argue that donors would be much more perturbed if charities were to refrain from using their knowledge and expertise to work with governments towards long-term solutions to public policy challenges. It may be a cliché, but I think donors would rather support an organization that teaches people to fish, rather than one that simply gives fish away.
We’re more than happy to engage in a discussion about charities’ role in public policy. Indeed, we’ve been having this discussion ever since charities were collectively tarred as money launderers, terrorists, and radicals serving foreign agendas. But if we’re going to have that discussion, let’s put everybody under the same microscope.
Note: Postmedia declined to publish this response.