Charitable Donations Have Benefited Rightwing Ideas More Than Leftwing


Highly prin­ci­pled libertarian-right colum­nist Andrew Coyne recently sug­gested a novel solu­tion in the con­tro­versy over the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment politi­ciz­ing CRA audits of the “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” of char­i­ties: elim­i­nate the tax ben­e­fits that donors get from con­tribut­ing to char­i­ties. Elim­i­nate this receipt­ing priv­i­lege from all char­i­ties, wrote Coyne in an August 27, 2014 Post Media column.

And he took a lit­tle stab at the wealth of some major donors to char­i­ties, though with­out not­ing that some char­i­ties are highly depen­dent on dona­tions, and the tax receipts that come with them, in order to per­form their impor­tant ser­vice for the needy or for demo­c­ra­tic dis­course in Canada.

Coyne’s points are fair enough, if not fully thought out. But they are also unre­al­is­tic. And get­ting ever­more unre­al­is­tic as Canada con­tin­ues a major eco­nomic shift. Under the very sort of neolib­eral ideas that Coyne con­stantly advances in his columns, gov­ern­ments in Canada and the west­ern world have grad­u­ally but con­sis­tently vol­un­tar­ily with­drawn from both claim­ing and exer­cis­ing their tra­di­tional polit­i­cal and eco­nomic pow­ers. They’ve entered into trade agree­ments and other pacts that trans­ferred more power to the cor­po­rate sec­tor while delib­er­ately sac­ri­fic­ing the reg­u­la­tory pow­ers pre­vi­ously bestowed on gov­ern­ments by vot­ing citizens.

This was no con­spir­acy but rather the imple­men­ta­tion of a belief sys­tem that holds that gov­ern­ment ought get out of the way of the more effi­cient cor­po­rate sec­tor and release its cre­ative pow­ers for the bet­ter­ment of all. It also advo­cates that each nation’s econ­omy spe­cial­ize in its area of sup­posed eco­nomic advantage—such as Canada’s econ­omy revert­ing increas­ingly to resource exploita­tion rather than toward increased man­u­fac­tur­ing and high tech­nol­ogy industries.

In Canada, one aspect of this shift was an attempt by fed­eral and provin­cial gov­ern­ments to down­load some ser­vice deliv­ery to the non-profit, vol­un­teer, and char­ity sec­tor and away from gov­ern­ment. And to rec­og­nize the role of out­side think-tanks and experts for pro­vid­ing input rather than lim­it­ing pol­icy brain­storm­ing to politi­cians and bureau­crats. And so emerged and grew a rash of influ­en­tial char­i­ta­ble rightwing think-tanks and research insti­tutes (includ­ing the CD Howe Insti­tute, Macdonald-Laurier Insti­tute, the Fraser Insti­tute and the Mon­treal Eco­nomic Institute—none of which seem to be under­go­ing “polit­i­cal activ­ity” audits), and a cou­ple of left-wing alter­na­tives. Fore­most among the lat­ter is the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Pol­icy Alter­na­tives (CCPA) that is under­go­ing an audit that appears to be apply­ing new def­i­n­i­tions of appro­pri­ate behav­iour. Another, in the sphere of energy pol­icy is the research orga­ni­za­tion Pem­bina Foun­da­tion, which has been in the press for under­go­ing a major audit.

All of these orga­ni­za­tions have grown partly through char­i­ta­ble dona­tions. There is a rel­a­tive numer­i­cal abun­dance favour­ing right-leaning insti­tutes speak­ing out on pub­lic pol­icy issues over insti­tutes lean­ing left. This is, of course, an indi­ca­tion of the much greater amount of money from cor­po­ra­tions and wealthy indi­vid­u­als and fund­ing foun­da­tions avail­able for orga­ni­za­tions that advance pol­icy ideas that ben­e­fit those same donors.

In this era of smaller gov­ern­ment and down­load­ing, a rash of health and socially ori­ented char­i­ties oper­at­ing at lower cost than does gov­ern­ment, have flour­ished in ser­vice deliv­ery and devel­op­ing pol­icy ideas. They have been funded partly by char­i­ta­ble tax write-offs, gov­ern­ment con­tracts, and some­times sup­ple­mented by gov­ern­ment grants at a lower appar­ent cost than obtain­ing the same out­put from gov­ern­ment depart­ments and employ­ees (the wis­dom of this down­load­ing is an ongo­ing sub­ject of con­tention and will not be dealt with here).

I would argue that over­all, the char­i­ta­ble tax credit has been far more an aid to the emer­gence of rightwing ideas, and down­siz­ing of gov­ern­ment, than it has been to left­wing alter­na­tive ideas and the growth of gov­ern­ment pro­grams. And thus Coyne’s pro­posal to deprive char­i­ties of dona­tions will pre­dictably go nowhere with this gov­ern­ment if it pauses long enough to find clarity.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. Check out media cov­er­age of my the­sis find­ings and the national con­ver­sa­tion it trig­gered. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @garethkirkby


I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and editing.

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