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For new Industry Minister, a steep learning curve

Maxime Bernier, the minister of state for small busniess and tourism, and Industry Minister Christian Paradis Minister leave a cabinet swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall on May 18, 2011.

FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

The small-town Quebec lawyer who is inheriting the high-profile and thorny foreign ownership file as Minister of Industry has practised corporate law and headed the chamber of commerce in his native Thetford Mines, a far cry from the major business sectors that he will now be overseeing.

Christian Paradis, who cut his teeth at Public Works and Natural Resources, emerged from Wednesday's cabinet shuffle as the voice of Quebec inside the Harper government, and also inherited a complex and high-tech file where he will have to grapple with a steep learning curve.

Among the most important matters facing Mr. Paradis is dealing with Canada's strict foreign ownership requirements in the telecommunications sector, which the Harper government promised to loosen. More urgently, the new minister must reconcile the government's open-door pledge on foreign investment with last year's politically-charged decision to keep Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan out of the hands of Australia's BHP Billiton Ltd.

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Tony Clement, who became Treasury Board President in Wednesday's cabinet shuffle, had promised more clarity along with unspecified changes to the Investment Canada Act. He never delivered, leaving the job of enacting any legislative changes to Mr. Paradis.

It's unclear if the Harper government is really interested in making substantial changes to a regime that has blocked just two of roughly 1,600 takeovers over the past quarter century. Mr. Clement promised a review of the Act and a statement to help interpret the law, but stopped short of promising to make foreign takeovers more difficult.

That spawned some confusion about which other Canadian companies, if any, Ottawa might deem too vital to let go, such as Bombardier Inc., Research In Motion Ltd. or TMX Group Inc., the owner of the Toronto Stock Exchange, which has proposed merging with London Stock Exchange Group PLC.

"A lot of people are looking for some clarity," remarked John Weekes, a former top Canadian trade negotiator and now a consultant at law firm Bennett Jones in Ottawa. "Was the Potash decision a one-off or is this a trend of what's to come?"

The new, higher-profile role for Mr. Paradis is a departure for the MP from a rural region of Quebec who is well known as a major supporter of Quebec's asbestos industry. As the Conservative Party's political minister for the province, he never hid the fact that he didn't feel entirely at ease representing Montreal, hundreds of kilometres west of his riding.

He brings an aw-shucks attitude to politics, having quickly shrugged off opposition allegations last year that he had sought $5,400 in compensation for a cashmere trench coat that was stolen at a party fundraiser. Instead, Mr. Paradis's office released a $600 invoice to show that he had purchased his low-brow coat at a store in his riding of Mégantic-L'Érable.

He is considered a loyal political soldier with a reputation for enjoying old-time politics. Mr. Paradis openly talked during the election about the "tangible benefits" that communities can expect to receive if they elect an MP who sits on the government benches.

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He will now be able to deliver on that front as he oversees Industry Canada, a powerful department with tentacles in every sector of the Canadian economy – but one that also presents a number of thorny files.

Case in point: foreign ownership in telecommunications, which became politically embarrassing for the Conservatives when the Federal Court ruled the Harper cabinet had erred in law by overruling a federal regulator to allow Globalive Wireless Management Corp. to offer service. Globalive was backed by an Egyptian group.

An appeal of that ruling went to court on Wednesday, but the case could become redundant if Mr. Paradis acts quickly and boldly on easing foreign ownership restrictions. How Mr. Paradis acts will have huge implications for the sector, as will the rules that he sets for an upcoming government auction of wireless licences.

The last auction netted the government more than $4.2-billion and birthed a new era of competition in the wireless sector. Mr. Paradis may be relied upon for new funds, especially as his predecessor now eyes the deficit at Treasury Board.

Regardless, Mr. Paradis, who is not considered a policy wonk, inherits an extremely technical and fast-changing portfolio. There are many files left over from Mr. Clement's reign, including copyright reform and the long-awaited "Digital Economy" strategy.

"Every time there's been a new minister of industry, it's taken eight months or so, minimum, for them to get up to speed, and that was the case with both Clement and Prentice before him," one senior legal source said. "And that did lead to delays, and there's a whole bunch of things the last minister promised, including a digital agenda ... It's a bit unfortunate."

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He will also have to satisfy a large number of powerful and vocal interests in industries where he is not particularly well known. But unlike Mr. Clement, he can engage industry representatives without worrying about the parliamentary paralysis of a minority government.

Michael Hennessy, Telus Corp.'s senior vice-president for government and regulatory affairs, said he hopes the Harper government will now take action on major files that were stalled in the previous era.

"The most critical thing we have, in terms of stability right now, is a majority government. The fact that there's a majority government in place, it's more likely that legislation can be done at a good pace, without worrying about minority government politics," Mr. Hennessy said.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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