Why the federal government picked a fight with charities

OttawaCitizen.com – technology
April 3, 2012.   By Michael Orsini, Ottawa Citizen

It is not the first time governments have tried to rein in charities. This time, however, it’s personal.

Buried in the so-called “austerity” budget and its overhaul of Old Age Security, among other big-ticket items that elicited media attention, is a direct attack on charities and what they do.

The budget opines that there are concerns “that some charities may not be respecting the rules regarding political activities.” The Harper government has empowered the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to monitor closely the activities of groups that claim charitable tax status, to ensure that they are not spending too much time being, well, political.

People in the charitable sector have, no doubt, heard this song before. The “10-per-cent rule” stipulates that organizations that want to retain their charitable tax status must devote no more than 10 per cent of their time to political activities. Who decides what constitutes political activities? How do you quantify how much of the group’s energy is spent engaging in the offending behaviour? Big questions for which we have only partial answers. The bottom line, it seems, is that the CRA can make those judgment calls. The job of charities is to follow the guidelines provided, in which there are examples of acceptable, minimally acceptable (not more than 10 per cent), and forbidden activities.

Charitable groups have been quick to point out that it is difficult to distinguish advocacy from charity. While the CRA’s guidelines are explicit that any partisan activity (such as declaring support for or opposition to a political candidate) crosses the line, organizations that feel passionately about an issue sometimes view political activities as the only legitimate way to express their displeasure with policy changes or to represent the individuals on whose behalf they might speak.

It is not a coincidence that this government has chosen to pick a fight with charities. As Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells reminded us in a recent column, earlier this year Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver decried the “environmental and other radical groups” who were trying to block resource development in Canada, aided, it was suggested, by, drum roll please, “foreign special interest groups.” Special interest groups are pesky enough. Foreign ones, it seems, are doubly disconcerting. And that’s why the Harper government believes we need tight rules to restrict their attempts to unduly influence Canadian groups.

Perhaps more pernicious than this cynical, politically motivated attempt to punish “radical” environmentalists, is that this policy change has the potential to ripple across the already fragile non-profit sector. It might be radical environmentalists today, but organizations working in other areas (social services, for instance) might get caught in the crosshairs of the Canada Revenue Agency’s audit team tomorrow.

What does it mean to be too partisan or political? Are some forms of political advocacy preferred to others? Will organizations advocating, say, a tough-on-crime agenda be subject to the same scrutiny as “radical” environmental groups or antipoverty organizations? If there were some indication that the Harper government planned to scrutinize the activities of charitable organizations that espouse views which the current government supports, it might be reasonable to allay those fears that the government is on a collision course with any advocacy group with which it disagrees. But it’s not clear that they intend to do this.

Stephen Harper’s majority government has issued a stern warning to charities to quit doing advocacy, and behave more like charities, in the most paternalistic sense of that term. If you represent a charity committed to eradicating poverty, do you need to stop advocating for poor people?

Any government with a keen sense of the ephemeral nature of its own political future should pay close attention to what groups have to say, even if they abhor those views. Sadly, this government has demonstrated, time and again, its utter contempt for the views of groups that disagree with them, even groups that can back up their advocacy with evidence.

The controversy over Insite, the Vancouver safe injection site, is just one example of how this government rarely lets evidence stand in the way of its policy intentions.

In the mid-1990s, political scientists Jane Jenson and Susan Phillips lamented what they saw as the erosion of a citizenship regime in which governments recognized the value of civil society organizations, even when those organizations clashed with the government of the day. The decision by the Harper government to step up its attack on advocacy, and punish groups seen as leftleaning or progressive, is a dangerous slide into a world in which advocacy only matters if it coincides with the political agenda of the government in power.

Michael Orsini is an associate professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. He specializes in health policy, and the role of civil society organizations in policy processes.

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