In Canada's most staunchly Conservative city, Official Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair has seized on one of the few areas he might be able to find some common ground with its downtown business crowd – provincial rights in the oil and gas sector.
With the aim of ensuring he has a presence in the hub of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's political base, the NDP leader wasted no time this week playing to Albertans' long-held concerns regarding federal meddling in provincial matters. Mr. Mulcair, whose home province of Quebec has also frequently clashed with Ottawa on matters of jurisdiction, told the Calgary Chamber the Harper government's strategy on foreign investment could erode the constitutionally-enshrined provincial right to manage non-renewable natural resources.
He capitalized on the distinctions between Alberta Premier Alison Redford's government and the Harper Tories, praising Ms. Redford's call for a national discussion on how to develop the country's natural resources, and arguing the Harper Conservatives did not pay enough attention to her government's request for tougher management and employment conditions before giving China's state-owned CNOOC Ltd. permission by Ottawa to take over Calgary-based Nexen Inc. late last year.
Mr. Mulcair also said Ottawa's investment treaty with China – the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) – ties the hands of provinces when it comes to natural resources. Once Chinese state-owned companies such as CNOOC already have a foot in the door in the oil sands, they will be able to use the yet-to-be-ratified investment agreement to be treated like a Canadian company – using the threat of legal action if its interests are impeded, he argued. This could tie the hands of the provinces as well.
"Taken together, what FIPA and the CNOOC bid do is to remove Alberta's ability to independently control its own natural resource policy, while ceding enormous control of our natural resources to a foreign power," Mr. Mulcair told the business audience at the Calgary Chamber on Tuesday, where he was given polite applause.
Mr. Mulcair said his party is in favour of trade and foreign investment, but only if it's done right – with strong environmental protections in place, full transparency about the nature of the deals, and certainty about what constitutes a "net benefit" to Canada as Ottawa scrutinizes foreign bids for domestic companies.
However, it's unclear whether his arguments will gain much traction in Alberta, where he has only one MP – in Edmonton. Although staff say Mr. Mulcair has visited Calgary six times since winning the NDP leadership, many still smart from his contention last year that the oil sands are causing a Canadian version of Dutch disease, where the energy sector drives up the dollar and other industries, including manufacturing, suffer. He is firmly opposed to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline on environmental grounds, and suggests the Keystone XL pipeline will benefit the U.S., especially in terms of jobs, more than Canada.
"At a high level, we see that the federal NDP has really aligned themselves – or tried to align themselves – with a pro-business agenda. The challenge becomes a clear understanding of dynamics that are operating within the sector," said Ben Brunnen, chief economist for the Chamber.
A spokesman for Ms. Redford said the Harper government did address her concerns related to the Nexen takeover.
"We requested that the federal government include a number of additional requirements as a condition of approval – in areas including maintaining job levels, investment guarantees and ensuring Nexen/CNOOC's North American headquarters remain in Calgary," Stefan Baranski said in an e-mail on Tuesday.
"I can say that Alberta was satisfied that our concerns were addressed and much of our advice was reflected in the ultimate approval."
Michelle Rempel, the Conservative MP for Calgary Centre-North, said Mr. Mulcair's speech was just another example of his party's anti-Alberta policy stance, and she was surprised to see him talking up provincial interests when he has demanded Ottawa step up its work in other matters, including environmental monitoring in the oil sands.
"I find that a little rich," said Ms. Rempel, who also serves as parliamentary secretary to the environment minister. "Almost every single policy stance that has come out of the NDP with regards to the energy sector has been to interfere in the provincial sector."