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CRA consultation welcomed by Voices-Voix Coalition, but concerned over limited scope and continuing political activities audits
September 30, 2016 (MONTREAL)—The Voices-Voix Coalition welcomes Wednesday’s announcement by the Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier of the government’s intention to hold public consultations to modernize the rules governing charities’ political activities.
“It is of utmost importance that Canadian charities are able to contribute to the formulation of public policy and be able to carry out their work without fear of harassment,” said coalition coordinator Tim McSorley. “We are hopeful that the public consultations will result in clear recommendations for an enabling environment that will support charities in their work.”
The coalition also welcomed Minister Lebouthillier’s statement that charities have a “critical role” to play in Canadian society and that they require a “fair system that respects and encourages their essential contribution,” signalling a clear shift from previous Canadian government policy.
At the same time, the coalition expressed concerns that the announced consultations seem to be based on an assumption that the restrictions currently found in the Income Tax Act will remain in place, and the question to be considered is how the CRA will enforce these restrictions. “The restrictions on freedom of expression and of association contained in the Income Tax Act are currently being challenged as violating fundamental Charter rights and many charities believe the legislation itself needs to be changed,” said McSorley. “Those concerns should also be considered in the consultation”.
Moreover, the coalition is concerned that the government has stated that political activities audits of a number of charities begun under the previous government will continue. The CRA should not be auditing and possibly deregistering charities based on restrictions which the government has acknowledged are out-dated and unclear. The coalition joins others in calling for all outstanding political activities audits to be suspended. No groups should have their charitable status revoked because of their non-partisan political activities while the consultations are proceeding or while the constitutionality of the restrictions is being considered by the courts.
“While in opposition, the Liberal Party of Canada decried these audits as ‘tax audit harassment’ and a ‘witch hunt,’” said McSorley. “The need for this consultation underscores the fact that the rules governing political activities of charities in Canada are broken, and that the current audits must be halted.”
Political activities, it should be noted, are not the same as partisan activities which support one particular party or candidate. As the government noted in its release, the concern here is over the limits placed on charities to participate in non-partisan activities. Restricted political activities have been defined by the CRA as any activity that explicitly communicates to the public that a law, policy or decision of any level of government should be retained, opposed, or changed.
Given the critical importance of charities’ policy work in addressing a wide range of societal issues, the Voices-Voix Coalition intends to participate in the consultation and prepare a submission based on inputs from its more than 230 members and other partner organizations.