Elections Canada climate advertising guidelines puts chill on green groups' advocacy

(The August 20 story was refiled to corrects the rules around advertising in the fourth paragraph)

FILE PHOTO: Students hold a protest against climate change on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo

(Reuters) - Canadian environmental groups fear losing their tax-free charity status if they run paid climate change advocacy adverts ahead of the October national election, after a warning from the federal election watchdog.

Elections Canada, a non-partisan body that manages federal elections, has said that such advertising campaigns could be interpreted as partisan politics.

The watchdog strictly regulates advertising during campaign periods, and one small right-wing party running in the October election - the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) - denies climate change is man-made.

Because of this position, the issue would be considered as affiliated with a party or candidate, making advertising over C$500 that takes a stance on it forbidden unless groups register as a third party.

The guidelines have been in place for 20 years, but never enforced on the issue of climate change because Elections Canada has not received any complaints that triggered an investigation and penalties.

The Canada Elections Act does not “make a distinction between facts and opinion,” Stephane Perrault, chief electoral officer of Canada, said in a statement. “It is not Elections Canada’s role to make that distinction, no matter how obvious it may appear.”

The potential enforcement of the guidelines has sent a chill through environmental groups in the lead up to the federal election.

“This is lunacy, and Elections Canada is not a lunatic organization, so I trust they will clarify and eliminate this ruling,” federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May said.

Surveys show that some Canadians consider climate change one of the top issues ahead of the vote. Only the PPC, which is polling at less than 5%, rejects it.

PPC leader Maxime Bernier, much like U.S. President Donald Trump, has said it is a natural phenomenon. But even Bernier, who broke away from the Conservative party last year to start his own bloc, said Elections Canada was misinterpreting the rules.

“The law should only regulate real partisan advertising, which is when there is mention of a candidate or party by name,” Bernier said on Twitter.

Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, said environmental groups would have to register as a third party if they spent more than C$500 on an ad campaign about the issue because of PPC leader Bernier’s position, a step he described as “onerous” and complicated for tax reasons.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he respected the independence of Elections Canada, but told reporters that the issue “underlines how frustrating it is that we are still debating whether climate change is real or not and whether we should act or not.”

Trudeau introduced a federal carbon pricing program scheme and is talking up his plan to tackle climate change ahead of his Oct. 21 re-election bid.

“I never would have thought saying climate change is real would be considered to be elections advertising,” said Keith Stewart, senior energy advisor at Greenpeace Canada, adding he hoped Elections Canada will soften its stance on the issue.

Reporting by Moira Warburton; additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Lisa Shumaker