I ran a charity for years. Joe Oliver is wrong about the damage his government did

Posted on May 16, 2017 in Inclusion Policy Context

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
May 15, 2017.   MARNI SOUPCOFF

Green political activists will be helping themselves to your taxes, thanks to the Liberals” reads the headline of an online column in May 9th’s Financial Post, authored by former minister of finance Joe Oliver. I have a great a deal of respect and time for Oliver, happily considering him a friendly acquaintance, but I think his piece does a disservice to anyone who would like to give thoughtful consideration to the most effective and ethical way of overseeing the funding of charities in Canada. Given what a precarious position free speech already holds in this country, particularly when it comes to politically unpopular views and ideas, it’s especially unfortunate that Oliver and others have chosen to characterize the Liberals’ proposed changes to the CRA’s charity rules as being the handiwork of offensive leftie activists.

In my two-plus years running a charity whose goal is defending the constitutional rights of Canadians (and whose championing of property rights, free trading rights, and individual rights often gets it labelled as being right-of-centre), few things made it more difficult for me and my colleagues to do our jobs effectively and use our donors’ money efficiently than the Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) definition of political activities. This definition restricted us, as it does all other charities, to spending no more than 10 per cent of resources on advocating for a change in law or government policy.

Oliver suggests that this rule “makes sense”; after all, “If you told donors that up to 10 per cent of their donations can be spent on political activism, quite a few would be surprised and some would be perturbed.” But the key point Oliver misses: advocating for a change in law or policy is not the same thing as political activism … at all. Under current rules, it’s considered a political activity for an animal welfare charity to try to convince the public that stricter limits on deer hunting would be a good idea. If a senior citizens’ charity decided to run a public campaign urging for crosswalks to be replaced with traffic lights at crossings near seniors’ homes, that would also be considered a political activity. Yet these are hardly the sort of campaigns that would surprise or perturb donors.

The Conservative government in which Oliver served budgeted millions of extra dollars for investigating political activities as a special project — perhaps because they too believed that this would be a way of shutting down obnoxious Green-Peacey enviros. So, for several years the CRA audited dozens upon dozens of Canadian charities to enforce the political activities restriction, and in doing so the government drained major time and money from left-wing environmental groups … and right-wing groups dedicated to limited government and pretty much every kind of group in between.

It’s hard to say precisely what impact these political activities audits had since most charities don’t like to talk about the fact that they’re being audited. At a minimum, I can attest personally to the chilling effect these audits had on my willingness to voice public concerns about the status quo when I ran a charity. When I wrote a newspaper column two years ago on this subject of the limiting nature of the CRA’s definition of political activities, I thought twice before publishing it. I was very conscious of the fact that the column itself could be used against my charity, since the piece was advocating for a change in government policy.

Certainly, the political activities pickle made me and my former colleagues hesitant about loudly declaring our true concerns about the constitutionality of the government’s then newly-passed security bill, C-51, even though the organization’s mission was (and remains) protecting Canadians’ constitutional rights. I don’t want to come off as humourless, but Oliver’s tongue-in-cheek comment about the “pristine charitable organizations that had their freedom of expression suppressed by the previous, controlling Conservative government” isn’t very far from the reality I experienced (though one could reasonably blame the CRA as well).

I agree with Oliver that it’s entirely understandable that registered charities that are permitted to issue tax receipts are forbidden from engaging in partisan political activity — they can’t, and shouldn’t, help particular politicians or parties. But, as I have asked in the past, where’s the evidence that there is good to be had from extending that justifiable prohibition to a limit on criticizing law and policy in public? How can charities make the world a better place if they’re not able to identify laws and policies that should be changed?

Note that under the current scheme, if we were living in an age where women still didn’t have the vote, a registered women’s charity could be restricted to spending no more than 10 per cent of its resources on encouraging the public to support women’s suffrage. The same could be true for a human rights charity advocating an end to laws permitting slavery.

I can’t agree with Oliver that changing that would be a bad thing.


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