Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Charities deserve a say

Should charitable organizations speak out during election campaigns? It’s an important question. There has been a long tradition of churches inviting electors to look at party platforms through the lens of their faith. But in this election campaign, something has changed. Not just religions groups but the whole charitable sector is publishing position papers and forming questions for electors to consider and ask the candidates in their district.

This is not, as a recent letter in this newspaper suggested, push polling.

Push polling is a form of election telemarketing which attempts to engage in propaganda and rumour mongering in the guise of a telephone poll. There is not analysis of data, just an attempt to spread doubt or fear. Richard Nixon was a pioneer of push polling in 1946 in an American congressional race. George W. Bush used it in his successful 2000 presidential campaign.

What the charitable and non profit sector is doing in this election campaign is looking at various party platforms and out of their particular learned experience on certain issues, asking specific questions for voters to think about.

So who is doing it?

According to a recent report published by Imagine Canada, a charitable organization itself dedicated to the support of the charitable and on-profit sector alongside business and government, charitable organisations have published briefs especially directed towards economic policy and quality of life issues.

Barrier-Free Canada, CNIB, the March of Dimes, the Canadian Hearing Society, Accessible Media Inc., and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada have released
a set of principles and recommendations to improve federal protection for persons with disabilities.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada have developed a youth-focussed election platform, with policy recommendations on youth engagement, mental health and youth employment. The Canadian Cancer Society has made a set of recommendations regarding tobacco regulations, research, and palliative care.

Other organizations have raised questions about aboriginal affairs, violence against women, the environment and conservation and many other concerns.

This is especially significant given that the charitable and non-profit sector has been paralysed by the alleged Canada Revenue Agency’s “audit chill”, where it was suspected (though not proved) that certain charities were being singled out for review based on government direction and not general audit principles.

In Canada, charities and non-profits are permitted to address public policy and engage in advocacy if they are strictly non-partisan, present information which is based on verifiable research and experience and which are subordinate to the activities which their charitable status is based on. A charity for the homeless has to help the homeless first and foremost (and this is what is reviewed by the CRA) but can speak from that experience to public policy, including during an election campaign. As Imagine Canada says, this is a much higher standard than to which any other sector is held. 

That the charitable and non-profit sector is speaking out of their experience is a good and healthy thing for our civic conversation. I invite you to look at your own favourite charity to see if they have a position paper for you to consider as you make your choice as an elector.

In the interest of full disclosure, I worked in the charitable sector for thirty six years