Elections Canada should not make climate change a partisan issue, says charity | CBC Radio

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Elections Canada's advertising laws are muzzling environmental groups that speak out about climate change, says Keith Brooks, program manager of the advocacy group Environmental Defence.

The organization's executive director revealed this week that an Elections Canada official warned groups in a training session that promoting climate change as real or an emergency could be considered partisan activity because People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has expressed doubts about its legitimacy. 

Elections Canada says the warning was just an example of an ad that could be deemed partisan, and that any decision about specific activities would be decided on a case-by-case basis and only if there is a complaint. 

It also clarified that the restriction only applies to groups that spend at least $500 on so-called "issue ads" during the election period. Under this rule, groups with advertising that "takes a position on an issue with which a candidate or registered party is associated" must register as a third party.

But Brooks says climate change isn't a partisan issue — it's a fact. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

What concerns do you have that stating a scientific fact, such as pointing out the existence of climate change, could be construed as a paid political ad?

We can still say that climate change is real. We're not barred from doing that.

The issue is are we going to do it in the form of an advertisement? And, really, that means are we going to do it over social media?

Because now if you want to have a message reach people — even those who follow you on, say, Facebook — you actually need to put a little bit of money behind that in order for it to reach those people.

So you can tweet it out, you can say it in an interview, but if you pay for an ad on any of those platforms, then that's going to limit you?

That's right. So it's about election advertising and it's about $500. And $500 is actually a very low threshold. It's very easy to spend $500.

What was your initial reaction when you heard that an official from Elections Canada had told NGOs that this was going to be a potential problem?

Climate change is hitting home across Canada. People are feeling the impacts of it. They're increasingly looking for answers, looking for governments to take action.

And I think one of the roles for environmental charities like Environmental Defence is to help educate Canadians, help them cut through the spin and understand, you know, who has actually got a good climate change plan and who doesn't.

Our ability to do that at a time when Canadians are faced with an important decision has been somewhat curtailed and that's upsetting.

Maxime Bernier has said publicly that he doubts the science of man-made climate change. If he were to make that a key campaign issue, does this mean you wouldn't be able to effectively refute that?

That's our understanding, or that's potentially what the risk is.

Elections Canada has clarified even more ... to say they're going to be assessing this on a case-by-case basis and it's going to be somewhat complaint driven.

Basically, we don't really know how this is going to go forward. But we have to err on the side of caution. We don't want to get on the wrong side of the law. We don't want to do anything that will be construed as partisan activity. We are a non-partisan organization and very careful about that. And we also don't want our charitable status to be put in jeopardy.

Even if we were to register as third parties, we still could not do partisan activity. Charities are prohibited from doing partisan activity at all.

People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has expressed doubts about human-caused climate change. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

I want to make clear that that's one of the issues here. Because if you register as a third-party political advertiser, you can say what you want about any issue. And, in fact, [the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers] has just done that. ... But they're not a charity, and you are.

They're not a charity, so they're not constrained. They're funded by the oil companies themselves, and so they are free to say whatever they wish and register as a third party. They can do partisan activity. They can do all of this kind of stuff. But charities are constrained.

Elections Canada has a key job when it comes to an election. That's to secure the integrity of democracy. Is it perhaps not better that they err on the side of caution when it comes to regulating any kind of ad that could be trying to influence voters?

In the case of climate change, I mean, this is a fact, right? Scientists agree that this is happening. 

I think some people on Twitter have been saying: Well look, what if somebody took a position against vaccinations? Or somebody said we live on a flat Earth? Or somebody said evolution isn't real? I mean, are these things now that we're not going be able to talk about during an election?

It makes sense that they're going to weigh in here and put some limits on what people can talk about, things that are clearly partisan. But to say that climate change is partisan? That's, I think, where the problem really is.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Canadian Press and CBC News. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.