Green advocacy group says $171,999 pro-carbon tax ad campaign “not partisan”

First published at True North on October 18, 2019.

The commissioner of Canada’s elections won’t “speculate” as to whether a six-figure sum spent advertising pro-carbon tax messages to Canadians violates the new third party rules, True North has learned. 

Canadians for Clean Prosperity, a green energy advocacy group, has put $171,999 into Facebook advertising since June, urging Canadians to vote against political parties opposed to a carbon tax. Its posts also make clear that the Conservative Party of Canada is the only one of the four major parties against a carbon tax.

Facebook’s new ad registry contains 1,012 separate advertisements from Clean Prosperity’s Fair Path Forward page. Most of the advertising ceased in early September, though $151 was spent promoting ‘get out the vote’ posts between Oct. 9 and Oct. 15, the registry shows.

Neither Canadians for Clean Prosperity nor Fair Path Forward is registered with Elections Canada as a third party, a requirement for organizations or individuals that spend more than $500 engaging in partisan activities, election surveys, partisan advertising or election advertising.

Clean Prosperity’s executive director says the organization’s activities fall outside of the third party legislation.

“Clean Prosperity and Fair Path Forward both did not register with Elections Canada, as the content of our ads is not partisan,” Michael Bernstein said in an email to True North. “Our ads, which you can see in the Facebook Ads library, have been focused on issues – namely carbon taxes and climate change. The only ads we’ve run since the writ dropped are about the importance of considering the environment when voting.”

Elections Canada’s website says “organic social media campaigns” can count as partisan activity.

“An activity promotes or opposes a political entity by naming it, using the party’s logo or showing a photograph of the candidate, for example. In some situations, even without directly referring to a party or a candidate, an activity could be perceived as partisan,” the website says.

“Issue advertising” – defined by Elections Canada as “advertising that takes a position on an issue that is clearly associated with a candidate or party, without referring to the party, candidate or other actor” – is regulated in the election period, but not the pre-election period, which spanned from June 30 until the day before the writs were issued.

The bulk of Fair Path Forward’s online advertising appeared during the pre-election period. While most of the ads are generic in nature, asking voters to think of the planet when casting their ballots or questioning “why…there are still some politicians against putting a price on carbon pollution,” others specifically reference the Conservatives.

In June, Fair Path Forward advertised a post linking to a Toronto Star op-ed saying “Andrew Scheer’s climate plan will be less efficient and more expensive.”

In July, the page advertised a CBC article about a Clean Prosperity report that took aim at the Conservative party’s climate plan.

Clean Prosperity published a press release in September, titled “Conservative Party releases highly deceptive ad about the carbon tax and rebate.”

In the release, which was picked up by numerous news organizations, Clean Prosperity doesn’t just criticize the Conservative position on the carbon tax, but quotes Bernstein as accusing the CPC of “fake facts” and deception.

“Using fake facts to attack climate policies is not much better than climate denial,” Bernstein says in the release. “I would encourage the Conservative Party of Canada to take down this deceptive and misleading ad, and instead focus their energy on improving their own climate plan.”

Bernstein, who is one of the two spokespeople for the Fair Path Forward campaign, also praised the Liberals in a separate statement published the same day as the one about the Conservative carbon tax ad.

“The Liberal Party of Canada’s announcement that they intend to reach a net-zero emissions economy by 2050 is a big deal,” he wrote. “For the first time in Canada, we now have a climate target from one of the two leading parties that, if met, would ensure we’re doing our part to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

In the statement he urged the “Conservatives to revisit their climate plan,” citing Clean Prosperity’s July report accusing the Conservative climate plan of leading to increased emissions and added costs.

That 15-page report, co-authored by Bernstein, focuses exclusively only the Conservative Party of Canada’s “A Real Plan to Protect Our Environment” policy paper. Clean Prosperity did not publish any similar reviews of any other party’s plan.

If the Conservatives don’t comply, Bernstein says “voters should take that into account when deciding who they’re going to support in October’s election.”

These are “quotes supporting the carbon tax and/or increased climate ambition, including correcting the record on a misleading statement about the carbon tax,” Bernstein told True North. “They are issue-based stances, not partisan ones.”

Bernstein published an op-ed in the National Observer on Oct. 11, grading the various political parties’ plans to cut carbon pollution. The Conservatives came out on bottom with a D score, while the Liberals and NDP were tied in first place with their respective B grades. (The Green party came in third with a B-).

An Elections Canada spokesperson declined to comment on whether Fair Path Forward and Clean Prosperity are in violation of the third party rules, simply stating that “any individual or organization that incurs more than $500 in expenses on regulated activities must register as a third party with Elections Canada.”

The $500 doesn’t just apply to advertising, but all expenses supporting the legislation’s four regulated activities.

The Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections declined to address the legality of Clean Prosperity’s activities.

“Our office doesn’t speculate about the legality of a particular issue,” a spokesperson said in an email. “It may also be useful to know that the Act does not regulate the content of advertising, except in very limited circumstances.”

The spokesperson reiterated the requirement for organizations spending more than $500 to register with Elections Canada as a third party.

Clean Prosperity’s board chair and founder, Greg Kiessling, has a long history of political contributions, in particular to the Liberals.

Elections Canada’s donor database shows that Kiessling has given to the Liberal, NDP, Green and Conservative parties. In 2016 and 2017 he contributed a combined $1775.00 to Michael Chong’s leadership campaign. (Chong was the only Conservative leadership candidate supporting a carbon tax). He also gave the Conservative Party of Canada $629.00 in 2016.

Since 2014, however, Kiessling has donated $6798.27 to the Liberals, the database shows. He also made a $5000.00 contribution to Stephane Dion’s leadership campaign in 2006. His most recent donation was $1600 – the legal maximum – to the Liberals in May of this year.

Bernstein does not appear in Elections Canada’s donor database, though someone with the same name has made several donations to the Conservatives.