Ottawa should finish the job on advocacy work by charities

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – The Trudeau government should move ahead on sensible reforms that would encourage registered charities to widen their contribution to public debates.
Nov. 17, 2017.   By

One of the more mean-spirited actions of the late Harper government was its misguided crackdown on dozens of charities for allegedly straying too far into the fraught territory of “political activity.”

Back in 2012 the Conservatives sicced the Canada Revenue Agency on at least 60 organizations, ranging from the David Suzuki Foundation to Environment Defence to PEN Canada. By an astounding coincidence, the vast majority of the targeted groups spent time advocating for positions that the government of the day found antithetical – on the environment, social justice, human rights and more.

It was, to be blunt, a thinly disguised attempt to limit public debate. The CRA launched audits of the charities, tying them up in red tape and putting a chill on their efforts to speak out on public issues.

To its credit, the Trudeau government called off the dogs last spring and put an end to that kind of harassment by taxmen operating on what were essentially political orders.

And in his mandate letter to Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed her to make sure that charities are “free from political harassment.” Further, he told her to update the rules around “political activity” so that charities can continue “to make an important contribution to public debate and public policy.”

So far, so good. But the government has left the job only half completed. It has failed to carry through on the recommendations of a five-member expert panel that it set up to review the whole issue.

That panel reported at the end of March and recommended several changes designed to allow registered charities more freedom to engage in political (but not partisan) activities as part of their advocacy on public issues. As a general principle, it said, advocacy by charities “should be recognized and valued, and seen as an essential part of the democratic process.”

It urged that the CRA change its rules to enable charities “to fully engage in public policy dialogue and development.” And it recommended that the Income Tax Act be amended to let charities take part in “non-partisan public policy dialogue” as long as it is “subordinate to and furthers their charitable purposes.”

To be clear, the group did not recommend that charities be allowed to engage in overtly partisan activity, such as campaigning for or against a party or a politician. “Political activity,” by its definition, involves advocating on matters of public interest – such as an environmental group opposing a pipeline project, or a human rights group criticizing restrictions on free speech.

All this makes eminent sense. The current law is outdated, and out of step with the practice in other major countries. At the same time, giving charities a wider scope to speak out on public issues would bring with it a host of benefits.

It would encourage experts associated with those groups to add their expertise to public debates. It would enlarge the pool of people participating in those debates, since charities often serve as a way for those without a strong voice to speak up. It would provide more opportunities for people interested in policy debates, but leery of traditional political parties, to get involved.

Finally, it would help to tip the balance in debates in favour of those with the public interest in mind. After all, businesses, unions, professional associations and others are free to speak out without restrictions. Why should registered charities have to look over their shoulders for fear of violating tax regulations?

The government should move ahead on these sensible and thoroughly democratic recommendations. But seven and a half months after the panel it appointed came out with its report, there has been only silence on this front from the revenue minister.

This should be an easy win for the Trudeau government as it reaches the mid-point in its mandate and seems obsessed with tracking and calculating its achievements so far. It’s firmly in line with the Liberals’ promise to promote wider democracy and public participation. It would allow the government to tick off one more promise fulfilled. As a bonus, it wouldn’t cost a cent.

While it’s on the subject of charities, the government should take another look at a recommendation by a parliamentary committee that studied the problems facing Canada’s struggling news industry.

Members of the Commons Heritage committee spent months examining the issue, and one of their recommendations was that media organizations be allowed to set up charitable foundations to support journalism. They found that model has had some success in other countries – such as the United States, with ProPublica, and Britain, with the foundation that owns The Guardian newspaper.

In October, though, the government rejected that proposal out of hand, along with everything else that Liberal and NDP members of the committee came up with in their majority report (the Conservatives dissented). The ministers who responded said only that “it is not clear” that changes to the Income Tax Act to allow not-for-profit media organizations and foundations to register as charities “would be an effective way of supporting the not-for-profit media.”

This makes no sense. It ignores the experience of other countries, as well as the evidence of thousands of other not-for-profits that use charitable status to underwrite their activities.

The ministers did allow as how the news media and journalism are “fundamental pillars of our democratic process.” But those are empty words as long as they brush aside any and all action to address the issues.

On both widening the scope of public advocacy for charitable groups, and allowing news organizations to explore alternate ways of supporting journalism, the government has unfinished business on its hands. It should move ahead.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2017/11/17/ottawa-should-finish-the-job-on-advocacy-work-by-charities-editorial.html

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