Adam Parachin is an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.
The WE Charity scandal highlights an important principle that seems to have fallen out of fashion lately: Charities, government and politicians are not in the same business, nor should they be.
As is now well known, the Trudeau Liberals contracted WE Charity to deliver, on its behalf, the Canada Student Service Grant program. That decision has been widely panned on ethical grounds, specifically in relation to alleged conflicts of interest.
There are other questions raised here about the proper role of charities. Why do we have them, and are they becoming too enmeshed with government and politics?
Canadian law treats its approximately 90,000 registered charities with incredible favour. Registered charities are generally exempt from income tax. Qualifying donations to registered charities attract generous income-tax credits. These tax concessions cost the public treasury billions in forgone revenue every year. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are also property-tax concessions and innumerable other exemptions from onerous rules of law. All told, the law does a lot to promote the institution of charity.
Why do we invest so much in charities?
We presumably do not do this just so charities can deliver government programming as standby independent contractors. We have a capable government work force to do the work of government. Neither do we have charities to help brand politicians. We have political parties for that purpose.
Charities are about something different. Charitable donors establish and fund scholarships. They help remedy food insecurity. They fund medical research. They support the arts, museums, animal welfare, human rights, the environment, education, religion and so much more.
Governments have long since occupied many of these fields as well. But there is a big difference: Governments mandate financial contribution through compulsory taxation. Charities are about the voluntary choice to share with others outside of the government.
Having to pay (via taxes) and choosing to share (via donations) are fundamentally distinct avenues for the flow of money. Donors voluntarily make the morally valuable choice to tangibly affirm, through charitable giving, the equal worth, value and dignity of their end beneficiaries.
A large part of what we are endorsing through the promotion of charity is the other-centredness and voluntarism that lie at the heart of true charity. These are worth supporting. Of course, they are also the very things that get muted when charities become too entangled with government and politics.
While this entanglement has long been a concern, it has intensified in recent years.
In their first mandate, the Trudeau Liberals enacted tax reforms that effectively allow charities to operate as full-time lobbyists. Prior to that, charities could only engage in limited advocacy. Charities definitely have a valuable role to play in public policy development. But where is the charity if the only activity is advocating for governmental intervention?
Now through the WE Charity debacle, we see a continued blurring of the boundaries. This is certainly not the first time a government has utilized a charity for program delivery. But there is a whiff here of the use of charity for political branding. The political prize in this game may not have been outsourced efficiency, but rather the halo effect of the government’s public partnership with a well-connected progressive charity.
The political response throughout was that only by contracting with WE Charity could the government achieve its objectives. That, of course, depends upon how you define those objectives. If political branding was one of the goals, then the statement is true. But then so much for the other-centredness that defines true charity.
We would do well to keep charity, government and politics separate. Otherwise, charity risks becoming yet another limb of government or cog in the political wheel. And what, then, would be the point of it all?
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