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Opinion To suggest Ottawa targets charities violates a vital public trust

Rudyard Griffiths was the co-founder of the Dominion Institute and is director of the Centre for Civic Engagement in Toronto, both registered charities. @rudyardg

The hysteria over Revenue Canada's auditing of the political activities of registered charities needs to stop. This debate has been dominated by political speculation and an almost complete lack of understanding of the basics of charities' law. Most worrying of all, the suggestion that the Charities Directorate is somehow being directed by the Harper government's cabinet to focus its audits on "left-leaning" charities is senselessly damaging a vital public trust; the sacrosanct independence of Revenue Canada from all things political.

The rules under which charities must operate when engaging in political activities are clear: 10 per cent of annual revenues can be used to take part in non-partisan activities that advance their charitable purposes. Policing the 10 per cent rule is important because of the massive public subsidy the charitable sector receives each year by the government forgoing taxing the incomes of charities and allowing them to issue tax receipts for gifts received. Charities have an overwhelming responsibility to use what is in effect public funds to promote social goods that are, in the broadest sense, for the benefit of everyone. Hence the commonsense understanding that charities should not spend significant amounts to support or oppose specific laws or policies – no matter how well intentioned this advocacy maybe – for the simple reason that such activity is, by its very nature, not be in everyone's benefit.

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Yet this we all know: some charities spend far more than 10 per cent of their revenues on political activities and do so flagrantly. This abuse of the public trust by a small group of charities is what Revenue Canada's "political" audits is cracking down on, and rightly so. The assertion that groups with a "left," or for that matter, a "right" political orientation are being disproportionally singled out by the Charities Directorate is nonsense. What Revenue Canada is doing is focusing its audits on charities that publicly engage in advocacy (on their websites, in publications, through events, etc.) to determine if they are violating the 10 per cent cap and/or are involved in prohibited activities. Don't just take my word on it. The director-general of the Charities Directorate, a career public servant, has gone on the record to rule out ideological biases in the audit process: "We are not targeting charities that have particular political leanings."

And now we get to the deeply damaging part of this debate. The inference, repeated over and over in the media, that Revenue Canada officials are following the political direction of Stephen Harper's cabinet, right down to the specific charities being selected for "political" audits. Such a contention is oblivious to how the federal civil service actually operates vis-à-vis its political masters.

As is the case thousands of times every day across the government, public servants in the Charities Directorate are setting about interpreting and acting on how best to bring about a specific policy outcome set out by Parliament. In this instance, nothing more and nothing less than ensuring that political activities by the charitable sector are in line with the current law and policy. To obviate the public's trust in this basic process of governance – especially on the part of a department whose work is as sensitive as Revenue Canada's – through wild speculation is the height of civic irresponsibility. If there are facts to back up the allegation that Revenue Canada is being partisan or ideological in its auditing of charities then we do indeed have a serious problem; one worthy of a vigorous national debate. But absent such a bombshell we are harming the public's legitimate belief in the independence and competency of the federal civil service.

The debate we should be having is how charities could be more active participants in public policy discussion and formation. Should we be raising the 10 per cent cap on political activities? Can "think tanks" by virtue of what they do be charities? Are the legal definitions of what is or is not a legitimate charitable purpose too prescriptive for 21st-century Canada? All important questions, the answers to which will most certainly not be found in more conspiratorial parsing of Revenue Canada's audit of political activities in the charitable sector.

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