The Liberal government is beginning consultations aimed at creating new rules for how charitable organizations can participate in the political process, reversing a policy of the previous Conservative government.
Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier announced at a news conference that, starting next fall, Canadian charities will have clear rules to guide their attempts to influence public policy.
A former social worker, Ms. Lebouthillier said charities are "key players" in Canadian society whose input is welcomed by the federal government. In a statement, the Canada Revenue Agency said it is "important that charities be allowed to bring their vast experience" to the public forum.
Under the Conservative government, the CRA audited several charities to ensure they obeyed limits on non-partisan activities, to which they could devote no more than 10 per cent of their resources.
Some of the groups targeted in the CRA crackdown accused the Conservatives of conducting a "witch-hunt" against their political opponents, such as environmental groups.
Canada has 86,000 official charities that can issue official donation receipts, which helps them raise funds.
In January, Ms. Lebouthillier announced the review of registered charities' political activities would be "winding down," saying the 30 audits to date had "shown substantial compliance with the rules."
Still, the government stopped only the launch of new audits, explaining that "the political activities program will be concluded once the remaining audits have been finalized." At the time, 24 charities were under audit. That number is now down to 12.
Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, said he hopes the consultations lead to a "new legislative framework" for charities.
Still, he said the CRA needs to shut down 12 outstanding reviews initiated under the previous government.
"For this process to be credible, they have to stop these harassing audits," Mr. Gray said.
A number of charities wrote to Ms. Lebouthillier in July saying the audits were paralyzing the activities of several charities unnecessarily and called on her to end them.
"These audits were initiated in the context of a co-ordinated public attack on charities by the previous government and continue to drain organizational resources, while placing some of the most well-respected charities in the country in precarious situations," said the letter, whose signatories included the David Suzuki Foundation, Équiterre and Amnesty International Canada.
"It is of great concern that these audits are moving forward while your government has acknowledged a need to clarify the rules around political activities," the letter said.
A new five-member panel will oversee discussions on this issue with the public at large and the charitable sector, through online and in-person consultations, and then establish new rules.
The panel is chaired by Marlene Deboisbriand, vice-president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada. One of the members is Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, which was one of the targets of a CRA audit.