Charity and politics – like oil and water?

Research | May 23, 2012

From Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s quip about pennies for charities, to the Tides Canada audit and the accusations of charities engaged in the criminal activities of “money laundering” and “influence peddling,” charities are getting a lot of consideration on Parliament Hill these days.

So what explains the government’s seemingly sudden charitable interest? The answer goes far beyond the idea of foreign funding, to the heart of what it means to be a charity in Canada.

Currently, charities can only devote up to 10 percent of their resources to non-partisan political activity associated with their charitable purposes. As part of this rule, a charity’s political involvement must be directed towards a specific issue or policy without expressing an opinion on specific political parties or representatives. This means that while the environmental groups targeted by the recent controversy cannot have a public position on the Conservative Party itself, they are perfectly entitled to express an opinion on pipeline development in Canada, which may or may not run contrary to the Conservative Party’s views.

As far as we can agree this is the case, the tightening of regulations around political activities in the 2012 Budget and the broad attacks on the activities of environmental charities in particular are actually out of step with the Canada Revenue Agency. Their policy statement on political activities makes it clear that “Beyond service delivery, [charity’s] expertise is also a vital source of information for governments to help guide policy decisions. It is therefore essential that charities continue to offer their direct knowledge of social issues to public policy debates.”

As a recent Globe & Mail editorial points out, a world in which charities should “be seen but not heard” is a far cry from the democratic society that we strive for. In fact, the writer reminds us that groups such as the Canadian Cancer Society have long been active lobbying the government for stronger anti-tobacco legislation.

Condemning an opinion on the blurry criteria of “national interest” leaves the health of public debate vulnerable to the whims of a few. One may not like a particular charity’s position, but our political leaders have a responsibility to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue which values democratic dissent. Canadians must not allow our charities’ voices to be silenced by regulation.

– SM

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