Keep the tax credits but remove all political restrictions

The subsidization of donations that help support political activities is something to be celebrated rather than resisted

By Robert Roach

National Post columnist Andrew Coyne recently wrote a column in which he presents a solution to the "problem" of charities engaging in political activities: scrap the tax credits available to charitable donors. 

Without the tax subsidy, it's nobody's business if charities choose to engage in political activities or not, Coyne states. This would eliminate the need for the federal government to police the charitable sector as well as its potential misuse of that power. 

There would, for example, be no need for the recent open letter signed by over 400 academics asking for a moratorium on the auditing of think tanks until a fairer process is in place. The political activities of charities would no longer be of any concern to the Canada Revenue Agency.

The problem with Coyne's proposal is that it tosses out the charitable baby with the tax credit bathwater. 

What if, like George Costanza on Seinfeld, we do the opposite? Instead of getting rid of the tax credits so charities are free to be as political as they want, why not keep the credits but remove the restrictions that limit the political activities of charities?

Giving donors a bit of a break at tax time is a longstanding social contract that encourages philanthropy and helps ensure that government is not the only funder and supplier of public goods. 

In the absence of tax credits, charities would continue to function and people would continue to support them with donations. But, assuming that the credits encourage larger donations, there would be less money making its way to charities. We can't keep asking charities to do more with less and expect the holes in the social safety net to get smaller.

From shelters for abused women and support services for the developmentally disabled to the free grief counselling provided by places of worship and the community grants made by philanthropic foundations, charities do a great deal to help people in need and enrich the quality of life in our communities.

To the extent that tax credits facilitate giving to charities and increase the overall amount of money available to them, they boost the capacity of charities to do the good things they do. As social contracts go, this one seems worth keeping.

Of course, if we keep the tax credits, we still have the "problem" of charities engaging in political activities. The solution is simple: drop the restrictions on political activities all together. 

Because political activities (such as commenting on public policy) are not considered to be public goods on par with things like education or poverty relief, federal legislation says that charities cannot commit more than 10 per cent of their resources to them (the threshold rises to 20 per cent for small charities).

This means that if a soup kitchen commits more than 10 per cent of its resources to arguing that more affordable housing is needed to truly deal with poverty, it is acting unlawfully and, by implication, immorally. Removing the restrictions on political activities (while keeping some prudent limits on outright partisanship and maintaining tight rules around funneling money to political campaigns) would unleash the social advocacy the current rules attempt to suppress. 

Instead of treating active engagement with the public policy process as an unseemly vice that should be restricted, we should be bending over backward to ensure that charities and the millions of people who donate to them, volunteer for them and receive services from them feel that they can stand up and have their say.

What really irks Coyne, however, is that tax credits entail "the privatization of decisions about public spending." Coyne has no problem with charities being political, he just doesn't want his tax dollars subsidizing the personal choices of others - political or otherwise. If you want to give to the Sierra Club or to the Fraser Institute or to any of the other 85,000 registered charities in Canada, that's great - just leave him (and other taxpayers) out of it.

Coyne makes a good point. But healthy democracies depend upon debate, dissent and competing voices. 

If we recast political activities on the part of charities as a public good rather than a disease to be contained, the subsidization of donations that help support political activities is something to be celebrated rather than resisted.

Robert Roach is Senior Analyst and Thought Leader, Economics and Research, with ATB Financial. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

This column was provided by Troy Media.