Last week, 14 environmental charities met with Finance Minister Bill Morneau to discuss promised changes to the political activities restrictions on charities, and they appear to have come away worried.
The federal Liberals campaigned in 2015 on a promise of reforming the stringent political activity limitations that had led to widespread audits of charities under the previous federal government. We wrote previously about the details of the restrictions and how the new Minister of National Revenue had announced a stop to the “political activities” audit project the Canada Revenue Agency had been conducting on charities. These audits particularly targeted environmental charities for advocating specific government policy positions. The audit project was indeed dropped and ongoing audits suspended.
The Liberals also convened an expert panel on reforming the political activities system, which resulted in a 2017 report containing several recommendations around reducing or eliminating the restrictions. The Minister’s office suggested that legislative proposals to implement the recommendations might appear in the summer of 2017. When that season came and went, anticipation built that they would be included in the 2018 federal budget. But this, too, failed to come about; the budget contained only a statement to the effect that the government would be providing a response to the report at some noncommittal point in time.
Now some environmental charities are pushing for the government to act on fulfilling its promises, as evidenced by their meeting with Mr. Morneau on Tuesday, April 17th, 2018. Their concerns appear to have some foundation, as Mr. Morneau reportedly declined to offer them much in the way of commitments, timelines, or assurances.
And the actions the federal government has actually been taking in this area are similarly concerning: its lawyers have been busy fighting in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice against the constitutional challenge launched by Canada Without Poverty, a small charity the CRA has been trying to revoke for political activities such as hosting dinners that had politicians in attendance. CWP takes the position that the law allowing the CRA to do this violates the constitutionally-protected rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association. The Liberals’ position is that CWP is just trying to grab subsidy money from the government, and that the small charity, being represented pro bono, should pay the government legal costs for bringing the challenge.
We will continue to monitor the progress of political activities reform, such as it may be, but cynically predict that the promised legislative proposals will not be materializing any time soon.