Op-Ed

Ottawa-based charity Canada Without Poverty wants to be allowed to play a bigger political role. Photo: Canada Without Poverty.

Current legislation necessary to keep money out of politics

Canada Without Poverty, an Ottawa-based charity, is arguing that it should be allowed to use more of its resources for political work.

In 2011, the Harper government created an amendment to the Income Tax Act (ITA), that, as the name suggests, regulates much of Canada’s federal taxation. One part of the ITA, which deals with charities, is now stirring up controversy.

Canada Without Poverty has argued that the government’s policy, which mandates that charities may only spend up to 10 per cent of their revenue on non-partisan political work, is too restrictive and should be abolished.

To examine whether this legislation truly is harmful, we need to look at what charities actually are, and what their purpose is under Canadian law. If we do that, it becomes clear that the legislation is fair, and prevents larger societal problems.

Canada’s definition of charity is rooted in the Statute of Charitable Uses, passed by the Parliament of England in 1601, which lays out an exhaustive list of examples of charitable activities, ranging from taking care of the sick to educating orphans.

It is notable that none of the activities included describe any sort of lobbying. Though some interpretations have changed since 1601, the basic principle of charitable action has not changed. Charities, at least as defined by the government, are meant to be non-partisan and meant to work towards the common good.
Charities are, therefore, charitable, not political, and should remain so.

The Trudeau government, like the Harper government before it, recognizes the need of charities to engage in some political activity to further their cause. This is why charities in Canada are allowed to devote a small portion of their revenue on political activity, as long as it is explicitly non-partisan.

When an organization like Canada Without Poverty allocates a staggering 98.5 per cent of their resources to political activity, no matter how benign, it should no longer be put in the same category as, for instance, the Calgary Inter-Faith Food Bank, which devotes 95.6 per cent of its resources to its cause. People donating to Canada Without Poverty or similar organizations should know that the vast majority of their money is going directly to the poor, not for some partisan lobbying effort.

Despite pressure from groups such as Canada Without Poverty and other activists, the government is right to keep the current restrictions in place. Large-scale lobbying by private organizations, whether they are collecting profit or not, can have a harmful influence on democratic discourse, and eventually debilitating effects on governance.

If the application by Canada Without Poverty is successful, then a precedent is set for large amounts of tax-free contributions to start having an effect on our governance. One only needs to hear the clamour about Citizens United and Super PACs south of the border to know that this is not the appropriate course of action for Canada to take.

The amendment to the ITA may be harsh, and it could certainly benefit from some clarification regarding what constitutes political activity, but the inherent idea is sound. It is a necessary protection against the further influence of money in Canadian politics.