Charities and political activities – new developments

The administrative policy of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) with respect to charities has been that no more than 10% of a registered charity’s resources can be allocated to non-partisan political activity. Where the CRA views a charity as having exceeded that threshold it may impose sanctions, up to and including revocation of a charity’s charitable registration status.

Earlier this year, an Ontario court decision effectively struck down the rules limiting the involvement of charities in non-partisan political activity, including the CRA’s 10% ceiling rule, declaring those rules to be invalid and of no effect. That change was effective as of the date of the Court’s ruling, which was July 16, 2018.

Needless to say, that Court decision created considerable uncertainty in the charitable sector with respect to the current or future involvement by charities in any non-partisan political activities. The CRA has now made two announcements intended to alleviate that uncertainty.

First, the CRA has announced that it will be appealing the Court’s decision, which it believes contains “significant errors of law”. The hearing and decision in that appeal is at least several months away.

The CRA has, however, also announced that changes will be made, not just to its policy with respect to the permitted political activities of charities, but to the Income Tax Act provisions governing the permitted activities of registered charities. According to the CRA’s press release, which can be found on its website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/news/2018/08/statement-by-the-minister-of-national-revenue-and-minister-of-finance-on-the-governments-commitment-to-clarifying-the-rules-governing-the-political.html, the planned changes will allow charities to pursue their charitable purposes by engaging in non-partisan political activities and in the development of public policy. Charities will still be required to have exclusively charitable purposes, and restrictions against partisan political activities will remain.

Significantly, the CRA will implement the planned changes through amendments to the Income Tax Act, with the intention of introducing amending legislation in the fall of 2018. Consequently, the new rules governing political activities of charities will be, not simply administrative policy on the part of the CRA, but legal requirements under the Income Tax Act. As well, the planned legislative changes will apply retroactively, including to the audits and objections of registered charities which are currently suspended. Such suspensions will be lifted when the planned legislation is passed by Parliament.

The CRA’s announcement of the planned changes did not include a detailed outline of the planned changes. However, the Agency did indicate in its press release that such changes would be “consistent with” Recommendation #3 found in the report of the Agency’s Consultation Panel on the Political Activities of Charities. That Recommendation is as follows:

 “The Panel recommends that amendments:

  1. retain the current legal requirement that charities must be constituted and operated exclusively for charitable purposes, and that political purposes are not charitable purposes;
  2. fully support the engagement of charities in non-partisan public policy dialogue and development in furtherance of charitable purposes, retiring the term “political activities” which tends to be understood in common parlance as partisan and is therefore confusing, and clearly articulating the meaning of “public policy dialogue and development” to include: providing information, research, opinions, advocacy, mobilizing others, representation, providing forums and convening discussions; and
  3. retain the prohibition on charities’ engaging in “partisan political activities” with the inclusion of “elected officials” (i.e. charities may not directly support “a political party, elected official or candidate for public office”) and the removal of the prohibition on “indirect” support, given its subjectivity.”

The full Report of the Panel is available on the CRA website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/charities-giving/charities/resources-charities-donors/resources-charities-about-political-activities/report-consultation-panel-on-political-activities-charities.html.

There is an important caveat: the CRA has indicated that its planned legislative amendments would be “consistent with” the Panel Recommendation, and not that they would reflect that Recommendation in every respect. Consequently, the content of the amendments may well differ in one or more ways from the Panel Recommendation.

The CRA has indicated as well that, once the legislative amendments are in place, it will be providing ”supporting guidance”, in collaboration with the charitable sector, presumably through plain language publications outlining both the legislative changes and how the CRA intends to implement and administer those changes going forward. Stay tuned.


The information presented is only of a general nature, may omit many details and special rules, is current only as of its published date, and accordingly cannot be regarded as legal or tax advice. Please contact our office for more information on this subject and how it pertains to your specific tax or financial situation.
 

Posted: Saturday, September 15th, 2018 | Categories: Businesses, Tax Alerts.

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