Tony Clement, the federal Minister of Industry, has much to explain after his laconic rejection of BHP Billiton Ltd.'s application for permission to proceed with its offer to buy Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc.
Canadians and investors around the world - not least Potash Corp.'s own shareholders - are entitled to learn what Mr. Clement thinks is the meaning of "net benefit" to Canada, in the words of the Investment Canada Act. Evidently, in his and his colleagues' minds, free markets and the free flow of investment are not sufficient.
If this means a new economic nationalism, what else is going to be protected? What does it mean for the foreign owners of mining and forestry companies in Canada? Should we expect foreign governments to act in a similar way toward Canadian companies?
More vehement opponents of BHP's bid, notably Brad Wall, the Premier of Saskatchewan, Michael Ignatieff, the federal Liberal Leader, and Greg Selinger, the Premier of Manitoba, have used different language. They have declared the potash deposits of Saskatchewan to be a strategic resource. Mr. Ignatieff duplicated the term: "We should not cede strategic control over a strategic resource." They all speak as if the word "strategic" were a self-explanatory objection to a share purchase by a company from a like-minded, friendly country such as Australia.
For all the strengths of Potash Corp., it is not a strategic asset in the sense of being the centre of an industry cluster that generates all sorts of spinoffs in its surroundings. Nor is it a multinational global champion that could plausibly act as the base for Canadian acquisitions abroad. Like Mr. Clement, the would-be strategists need to explain their strategizing.
This strange rebirth of economic nationalism comes from the very region that opposed the national energy program of the 1980s. Indeed a whole history of opposition to non-Canadian ownership and acquisitions has hitherto had a decidedly centralizing tendency. Now, however, the Conservative government appears to have abandoned its economic liberalism, for the sake of holding onto 13 seats in Saskatchewan.
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