Climate change and election advertising has sparked a storm over the past several days. The ginned-up controversy is a sure sign an election is near.
It began with a Canadian Press story that reported on an Elections Canada warning to an environmental advocacy charity. Elections Canada had suggested that, during the election period, a paid advertisement about the threat of climate change would be categorized as election spending, because Maxime Bernier, head of the People’s Party of Canada, is skeptical of rock-solid climate science.
Cue the (predictable) outrage. Why should the beliefs of one politician, polling in the lowest of single digits, constrain the stating of scientific fact? This line of thinking made for highly combustible kindling.
But those who are upset are missing the mark. This isn’t about Mr. Bernier’s fringe party, and Elections Canada doesn’t have an opinion about the science of climate change. What it has is an opinion, and not an unreasonable one, about the legal status of groups buying advertising to share their opinions about political issues during an election.
Rules around outside groups spending money on political advertising have been in place for years, in part as a way of preventing unions and corporations from evading the limits on political donations and spending or circumventing laws against politicians raising money from anyone other than individuals. The Liberal government, with amendments to Canada Elections Act, strengthened those rules last year.
One big change was the creation of a pre-election period, which started on June 30. In the months ahead of the 2015 election, partisan advertising – advocating for or against a party or candidate – was an unregulated free-for-all. But now, for about two months before the writ drops, there are spending limits and third-parties have to register with Elections Canada if they buy more than $500 of partisan advertising.
There’s a case to be made that the pre-election period should start earlier. Canadians who watched Toronto Raptors playoff games will likely recall attack ads against Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer. These came from groups allied with the Conservatives and the Liberals, but which don’t have to follow donation limits or the rules against corporate and union money. In the pre-pre-election period, these groups were unregulated – and, not coincidentally, disappeared when the new rules (which also include transparency requirements, such as where they get their money) came into force on June 30.
While there are new rules on partisan advertising during the pre-election period, third parties remain unconstrained on issues advertising, where positions are taken but parties and candidates are not mentioned. That includes, for example, a campaign called One Earth, One Vote from a coalition of environmental groups that calls the 2019 election “a crucial moment for our planet” and urges Canadians to back “strong climate action.”
Once the writ is dropped, however, such third-party advertising will be treated as regulated election advertising. That’s long been the law.
That the One Earth, One Vote campaign could be classified as election advertising, during an election, does not seem unreasonable. Climate change is real and that Canada and the world must take big steps to address it, this page has long argued as much – but that’s not what this is about. Unless Canada wants to fertilize the growth of American-style political-action committees, which exploit precisely this kind of loophole to allow for unlimited donations to and spending by non-party “issues campaigns,” then election-period political advertising by anyone other than political parties has to be regulated. It can’t be avoided.
It’s hard to argue advertising that aims to influence people’s thinking, during an election, isn’t political. An ad doesn’t have to name a party or leader to have a political purpose and the goal of influencing the electoral outcome.
If we are serious about banning corporate and union donations from federal politics, then a fairly high level of regulation of third parties is necessary. Ironically, Mr. Bernier opposes that; he called for environmental groups to be free to go after him.
Also ironic is that the theoretical spectre of Elections Canada clamping down on talk of climate change has been used to thrust the issue of climate change to the fore – where it will likely remain through to the final vote, on Oct. 21.