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Foreign-investment legislation in works for telecom, Bernier says

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier speaks with reporters after Question Period in the House of Commons on Oct 7, 2010.


Fresh from overruling the CRTC on Internet billing in the name of consumers, Conservatives want to enact legislation to open the door to more foreign ownership in telecom, maverick Conservative MP Maxime Bernier says.

Mr. Bernier, a particularly outspoken member of the Tory caucus, is an ardent believer in free markets and a former minister of industry. He was commenting on his successor Tony Clement's decision to effectively kill a CRTC ruling on Internet billing in the name of empowering consumers and fostering competition.

Mr. Clement vowed Thursday that Ottawa would never implement a January CRTC ruling to end unlimited downloading Internet plans offered by small web-access providers.

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Asked by a Halifax radio station for his reaction to the Harper government's move, Mr. Bernier said he believes Mr. Clement wants to bring in a bill to liberalize foreign investment legislation. "We need more competition, and the way to have more competition is to open foreign investment, foreign ownership in the telecom [industry]in Canada," the Quebec MP told Maritime Morning with Jordi Morgan on station News 95.7.

"We don't have that, and I think that Tony [Clement]wants to bring legislation before the Parliament, and I hope he'll do that as soon as possible."

The only hitch, of course, is that foreign investment restrictions are a politically-sensitive topic and the Conservatives would likely be loath to proceed on this on the eve of a possible spring election.

Mr. Clement's office said the minister, not Mr. Bernier, is the point man for foreign investment in telecom.

"As you know, Minister Clement speaks for the government on these issues. Should there be something to discuss, he will be the one to do so," press secretary Heather Hume said.

The Harper government pledged to liberalize foreign investment rules for telecom firms in its February Throne Speech - and Mr. Clement launched consultations on this in June 2010.

Last November, Mr. Clement announced he was postponing a decision on easing restrictions on ownership of telecommunications companies by non-Canadians until some undefined point in 2011 or 2012. He said at the time he would delay any decision on the matter until he resolves how to design the next auction of wireless frequencies for mobile phone companies - a sale not scheduled to take place until late 2012.

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The delay buries a possible lightning rod for criticism in advance of an expected 2011 federal election, ensuring the Conservatives don't head to the polls facing partisan accusations of selling out Canadian companies.

Telecom industry sources said privately at the time they believed the minority Harper government had been spooked by strong public opposition to the Potash sale, which threatened seats in Saskatchewan.

But Mr. Bernier told the Halifax radio station Friday he hopes Mr. Clement will act soon. "That's the solution in telecom, having more players. You're going to have more choices, and you're going to have lower prices."

He said opening the door to more foreign ownership would be better than a piece-meal approach.

"In dealing with different parts of the telecom industry, like the decision of the CRTC, it's dealing [with]that block by block, and I think the way to deal with it is on the global … look at the global picture,  and we need more competition, and the easiest way to  do it, [is to]open to foreign investment. There's a lot of companies out there who want to give good services to Canadians."

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