We should let charities shape public policy

Posted on April 13, 2015 in Inclusion Policy Context

Times-Colonist.ca – Opinion/Op-ed Comment
April 12, 2015.   Bruce Campbell , Tim Gray , Eric Hebert-Daly and Julia Sanchez

In recent years, there has been considerable controversy about the role of charities in public policy development. Some government and industry officials have stated that our organizations should not be involved in important public discussions on issues such as climate change, human rights and poverty reduction.

It’s critical for Canadian society that charities be involved in public debates. That’s why 18 environmental, international-development and social-justice organizations recently came together to ask all political parties in Canada to make an election-year commitment to protect this role.

The health of our democracy depends on more than citizens exercising their right to vote. The extent to which debate, between elections, on issues is informed and motivated by engaged citizens is an indicator of the overall health of our democracy.

We cannot solve complex societal problems if the only time citizens get to express their views is at the ballot box. This is the first way the work of charities contributes greatly to Canada’s democracy.

Second, charities have sound policy advice to give policy-makers.

Many charities have acquired considerable knowledge about how government policies affect people’s lives and are well placed to assess and comment on those government policies. Their expertise is also a vital source of information to guide governments’ policy decisions. Canadian charities can help in a range of ways: generating real world knowledge; convening stakeholders; facilitating and informing dialogue; and providing neutral spaces for engagement.

Most of all, charities serve a vital purpose in bringing public interests to the forefront of public conversations. Canada would not have addressed acid rain, promoted safe driving, reduced smoking or banned toxic chemicals without years of organizing efforts by Canadian charities, who championed these issues.

While the work of charities has enormous benefits for society as a whole, the environment in which charities work is not always supportive. A confusing regulatory environment leaves many unclear on how proactively charities can advocate for policy change.

The Income Tax Act appears to be open to widely divergent and changing interpretations of what constitutes charitable activity and what is permissible engagement in public debates. The result is an advocacy chill where many charities feel that their efforts to contribute to important public debates are being discouraged, subjected to rhetorical attacks or arbitrary review.

Some commentators in the media say that charities should give up their charitable status in response to this unfavourable climate. In our opinion, this would be a grave mistake because it would signal agreement with those that imply that our work is not worthy of the Canadian public’s support via tax incentives.

There is also a key issue of equity and citizen empowerment. According to the same Income Tax Act, corporations are able to deduct 100 per cent of the cost of involvement in advocacy and lobbying from their gross income, thus greatly reducing their taxes. Canadian citizens get only a small tax credit for donating to a charity that does public policy work. If citizens were to lose that benefit, as charities disappear or give up their charitable status, this would tip the financial scales in favour of corporate influence even further than they already are today.

We believe that would not favour Canada’s democracy and we expect most Canadians would agree. That is why we are asking all federal parties to commit to fixing the system and protecting your rights as citizens to have a voice.

Charities should and must be involved in shaping public policy. They make an important contribution to society and should be provided with the space to do so effectively.

Bruce Campbell is executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Tim Gray is executive director of Environmental Defence, Eric Hebert-Daly is the executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Julia Sanchez is the CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

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