Canadian charities – especially environmental charities – now feel threatened that they will lose their special tax status if they engage in ‘political’ activity. The Canada Revenue Agency website describes the rules:
Registered charities are prohibited from partisan political activity, because supporting or opposing a political party or candidate for public office is not a charitable purpose at law. There are two aspects to the prohibition: the first restricts the involvement of charities with political parties; the second restricts the involvement of charities through the support or opposition to a candidate for public office. Charities engaging in partisan political activities risk being deregistered.
There is also a policy statement that further fleshes out the rules.
This means, for instance, that LGBT organizations cannot support candidates who support equal rights for their members or oppose candidates who want to restrict their rights. Environmental charities, likewise, cannot oppose parties or candidates that believe in the wholesale destruction of the natural world.
I think this overlooks the reality that large-scale social and political change always requires political agitation. Campaigns against child labour, or in favour of the rights of women, could never have succeeded if they did not engage with the political system. If society is going to continue to make progress, it seems sensible to recognize this and allow charities to pursue their aims through political means.
The current restrictions on political activity are especially objectionable in that they risk being selectively applied. Canada’s Conservative government is a strident defender of the oil sands and fossil fuel development generally, frequently advancing the laughable claim that this is an ‘ethical’ source of energy. Cracking down on charities for engaging in political activity is just another way in which the government can tilt the scales in favour of this destructive activity.
The scale of change which we need to achieve if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change is enormous. It requires major political change in countries like Canada. Allowing environmental charities to fund bird sanctuaries, but not to support or oppose parties or candidates, misrepresents the scale and character of our environmental problems. It also misrepresents the proper role of civil society in democratic societies, which does not end where the formal realm of ‘politics’ begins.