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EDITORIAL: False alarm on federal election issue ads

There was confusion and overreaction recently when some people thought Elections Canada was trying to curb election ads about climate change. — Reuters file photo

Perhaps it was a sign that people are on edge before what looks like it could be a polarizing federal election.

Perhaps it was an overreaction.

But whatever else it was, it certainly is a sign that things can be more complicated than they appear.

At the beginning of the week, it seemed hard to believe: Elections Canada was telling environmental groups that elections advertising about climate change could be seen as partisan, simply because one party, Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada (PPC), rejects the idea of climate change. Because of that, discussing climate change was somehow off the table.

That position seemed ridiculous — even to Bernier, who said the concept was “absurd,” adding, “The law should only regulate real partisan advertising, which is when there is mention of a candidate or party by name.”

Now, environmental groups have a right to be touchy; after all, the last Conservative federal government clearly targeted them and subjected several to expensive Canada Revenue Agency audits that threatened to strip them of their charitable status for taking stands on issues deemed to be political.

Elections Canada has since clarified the position they were putting forward, and it’s a pretty reasonable one: anyone who launches an advertising campaign during the federal election itself is subject to certain rules.

And the rules around issue-based advertising being done by outside groups are not new.

Elections Canada has since clarified the position they were putting forward, and it’s a pretty reasonable one: anyone who launches an advertising campaign during the federal election itself is subject to certain rules.

For the issues-based advertising, if an outside group spends more than $500 on advertising, the group has to register with Elections Canada as what’s called a third party advertiser, and would be limited to spending a maximum of $511,700 on advertising during the federal election campaign. (The restriction on issues-based advertising doesn’t apply before the election is called.)

“The only instance in which the act covers the promotion of an issue, without mentioning a candidate or party, is when someone spends money on issue advertising during the election period,” says a statement from Stéphane Perrault, Canada’s chief electoral officer.

The rules about issues advertising have been in place for two decades; perhaps what gave the recent issue traction was the suggestion that, somehow, the presence of the PPC in the campaign meant talking about climate change was banned.

The truth is, it’s important to have rules surrounding third party advertising, whether it’s about climate change, gun control, opposition to gun registration, calls to ban abortion, supporting the construction of pipelines or anything else.

When interest groups are paying money to influence voters, their campaigns have to be accountable, public and transparent.

And the rules should be the same for everyone involved.

It’s the only way to keep big money from launching persuasive, expensive campaigns that serve the ends of otherwise unknown funders.

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