Politics, the charitable sector, and the public sphere | #cdnpoli

There’s been some discussion recently about the role of charitable organizations, and by extension other NGOs, in social advocacy and the debate over public policy. In an essay for the Star this past weekend, Alan Broadbent calls for just that in arguing for more overt political activity from Canadian charities.
It’s not hard to discern the context for Mr. Broadbent’s essay. Indeed, he makes it clear in his very first paragraph in citing the recent federal budget and characterizing it as a shot across the bows of Canadian registered charities, and in noting the rhetorical strategy employed by the Harper government and its acolytes in promoting accelerated exploitation of the Alberta tar sands.
HIs essay notes that the law allows charities to devote up to 10 per cent of their activity to politic, and encourages Canadian charities to become more active participants in policy discourse. (In fairness, he also notes that many charitable organizations don’t have the organizational resources to play too prominent a role in that regard, occupied as they are with programming and fundraising.) In describing the need for their participation, he notes that

… since governments have shed much of their policy capacity in the last few decades, they need good ideas from outside, and particularly from those working close to the coal face of society’s problems.

Mr. Broadbent makes a useful argument, and it’s particularly timely in its evident defence of the fact that some of the money for Canadian charities and advocacy comes from sources outside Canada, if for no other reason than that it blunts the Harpublican strategy of demonizing opponents as foreign-funded radicals trying to hijack Canadian regulatory processes.
That’s one level, anyway. The discussion is valuable on that level, but let’s try to view it in a somewhat larger context — one which examines the role of charitable organizations not just as political actors, but as service providers and enhancers of community bonds and — one of my favourites — the public good.
It’s become fashionable, as governments embrace the “austerity” fetish and shed the capacity to act, to call for more reliance on private-sector actors and/or charities. Indeed, last December Hamutal Dotan described an incident wherein Doug Ford reached into his own pocket and wrote a personal cheque to help out a school nutrition program.
God knows, I’m not here to kick Brother Doug around for that. But, as Hamutal argues, necessary social programs shouldn’t have to rely on charity or personal generosity. And that’s the larger context for both her argument and Alan Broadbent’s.
Once again, it’s useful to unpack some of the underlying assumptions and go back to first principles. Part of that involves making my own biases explicit, but that shouldn’t take long.
Why do we have government? Why do we have a public sector? Why, for that matter, do we have communities and social structures? I’d argue that a large part of the reason is collective empowerment: we pool our efforts and our resources in pursuit of the common good. By working together, we accomplish things we can’t accomplish on our own. Regardless of whether you want to call yourself a conservative, a socialist, a liberal, or whatever, that’s the basis for community.
And that’s the organizational underpinning for whatever sector of public policy you want to cite: education, national defence, municipal infrastructure, public transit, health care, food inspection, energy, environmental protection, and so on. That’s why political priorities are set, resources allocated, timelines established, and structures established to ensure democratic oversight and administrative accountability. It’s not a simple process, but it can and does work when it’s properly resourced and managed. As with most complex undertakings, it depends on consistency, predictability and transparency, and an overarching commitment to the public good.
It’s for that reason that I find the increased emphasis on charities disquieting. I’m not questioning the value of the work they do, and I’m not saying they aren’t worthy of all the support they get and more. But I am taking issue with the idea that we should rely on them to step into the vacuum left by diminished and kneecapped public institutions.
Where is it written that we must reconcile ourselves to the enfeeblement of government, of the public sphere, of our collective capacity to act for the common good? Just because “austerity” has become the flavour of the month doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly been relieved of our obligations to ourselves, to our communities and to our fellow citizens.
Regardless of the political context or the issues of the day, those obligations are constants. They are necessary incidents of citizenship, and of membership in civil society. As such, they need to be resourced and supported consistently. They shouldn’t have to depend on charitable donations. They’re unpredictable, they’re hard to budget for, and they’re too dependent on the personal preferences of donors, commendable though those might be. Frankly, I don’t want the social fabric and essential community programs dependent on the Jim Doaks of the world.

And, as the warning shots Mr. Broadbent cites illustrate, charities are vulnerable to politically motivated attacks.
We can argue about the legalities and the definition of political activity and whether any given initiative comes close to the 10 per cent threshold, but the chilling effect of those warning shots is perfectly obvious. The Harper regime’s strategy for dealing with people and organizations it doesn’t like is a matter of record. Bracing as Mr. Broadbent’s call to action is, it’s that much riskier for any small organization to stick its head up under the circumstances.
(Do I have to point out that I’d be delighted to be wrong about this?)
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