Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

The Problem With Charities And Politics

The Harper government is absolutely right that we have a problem with charities getting involved in politics: They don't do it nearly enough.

"Many charities have acquired a wealth of knowledge about how government policies affect people's lives. Charities are well-placed to study, assess, and comment on those government policies. ... It is therefore essential that charities continue to offer their direct knowledge of social issues to public policy debates."

That's the government talking. More specifically, that's the government's principle policy statement on the involvement of charities in political activities. It came into effect in 2003. It's still in force.

And who could disagree? We're not talking about partisan politics, which charities aren't permitted to get involved in. Here, "political activity" means debates about whether some law or policy should be changed in some way (or retained, if change is being discussed). Charities develop specialized knowledge about the fields they work in and if they get involved they add an in-formed perspective. Whether I or anyone else agrees with their views, or whether the government ultimately acts on them, does not matter. They enrich the discussion. And that can make public policy better.

At a time when there is a shortage of serious public policy analysis - as the economist Don Drummond argued in a recent essay - we need charities to get more involved.

But most charities aren't getting involved at all.

"There are very few charities of the 85,000 out there that actually do any political activity," says Marcel Lauzière, president and CEO of Imagine Canada, an umbrella group representing charities. "Of those that do political activity, very few even come close to (putting) 10 per cent (of their resources to-ward it.)"

One might think the government would be alarmed by this fact. Surely the government wants to add charities' experience and know-ledge to the mix. Surely it wants public policy debates to be fully in-formed. Surely the government will vigorously encourage charities to step up and get more involved in political activity.

Of course to think that one must not have read any news since January, when the Harper government launched a hyperbolic campaign against charities it says are far too involved in politics.

"There is political manipulation," huffed Senator Nicole Eaton. "There is influence peddling. There are millions of dollars crossing borders masquerading as charitable foundations into bank accounts of sometimes phantom charities that do nothing more than act as a fiscal clearinghouse." (One could note how odd it is for any member of a chamber filled to the rafters with political manipulators and influence pedlars to angrily denounce political manipulation and influence peddling. One could also note that it's particularly strange to hear this from an Annex plutocrat given her office by a prime minister grateful for many years of loyal cheque-delivery service. But one will stick to the substance of the issue.)

Eaton is one of several prominent Conservatives leading the charge against environmental charities which they claim are taking foreign money and abusing their charitable status - and the tax exemption that comes with it - to obstruct the Northern Gateway pipeline and other policies the government sup-ports.

It's hard to say how much sub-stance there is to these charges but the evidence I've seen isn't impressive. Quite the contrary. As Canadian Press reported, only one environmental charity is among the top 10 recipients of foreign money. It is Ducks Unlimited. And Ducks Unlimited is such a favourite of the Conservatives that it was recently given a position on the Harper government's new hunting and fishing advisory panel. The whole thing reeks of disingenuousness.

But no matter. In the budget, the government announced that charities will now be required to do more reporting on their political activities. There will also be more audits and enforcement of the rule that says charities can put no more than 10 per cent of their resources toward political activity. Violators can lose their status as charities - which would be a death sentence for most.

Many commentators see nothing wrong with this, provided enforcement is done even-handedly. But that ignores the context.

One reason why charities are sometimes reluctant to get involved in political activity is ambiguity. What counts as forbidden "partisan activity"? What is permitted "political activity"? That's very hard to define in a way that can be easily applied to any set of circumstances. The government's policy statement struggles mightily to explain but I still found it complex and confusing. I have a law degree and yet I'm not sure I could apply the rules with confidence if I were the head of a charity.

On top of that, leading Conservatives are now using incredibly bellicose language to attack charities involved in what they consider to be inappropriate political activity. Senator Eaton has even suggested that churches - a big part of the charitable sector - have no business getting involved in political activity at all. "I don't think churches should take political stands," Senator Eaton said in a re-cent interview. "I think they should be more about helping people and giving people succour."

Of course Eaton's statement is gibberish, since politics can be an effective way to help people. But this isn't about logic. It's about sending a message. And the Senator's message to charities couldn't be clearer: Shut up and stay away from politics.

You can bet charities are hearing that loud and clear.

"The worry that I have is that the rhetoric is creating a chill," says Lauzière. Instead of charities get-ting more involved with politic-al activity, as we need them to, they will shy away even more.

And that is "the worst possible outcome," Lauzière says. "If you look at all kinds of great policy developments in this country, going from tobacco-free environments to drinking and driving to the acid rain treaty with the U.S. to the national child benefit around child poverty, all of these policy developments came forward because of the work of charities. The last thing we want is less of that happening."

Unfortunately, the government may see that as a feature of its campaign, not a bug.