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Natural resources minister says public opinion factors in foreign takeover bids

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver started out as a lawyer, but an MBA allowed him to go on to a career in investment banking before becoming an MP.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Canada is a democracy and public opinion plays a role in the Conservative government's decisions on foreign takeovers, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said Wednesday.

Public sentiment is not a criteria listed in the Canada Investment Act but the Harper government appears to be wrestling with voter opinion as it applies the "net benefit" test to foreign takeover bids — especially by state-owned enterprises.

Following a Conservative caucus meeting in Ottawa, Mr. Oliver was asked directly if public opinion is one of the criteria for determining net benefit.

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"This is a democracy and the government takes into account the opinions of Canadians," Mr. Oliver responded. "Beyond that I have no comment."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said clearer new rules will be drafted in the wake of his government's weekend decision to reject a proposed takeover of Alberta's Progress Energy by a Malaysian state-owned oil and gas company.

A $15.1-billion bid by China's National Offshore Oil Corp., for Nexen Inc., is the next decision looming for the Conservative government.

A new survey Wednesday suggested the CNOOC takeover may be running into head winds in Alberta.

A poll by the University of Alberta's China Institute found public opinion deeply divided on Chinese investment in the province, with 37 per cent of respondents saying partial Chinese ownership in Alberta resources is acceptable, 36 per cent against and 27 per cent undecided.

The same survey asked about full Chinese ownership and just 15 per cent of respondents found it acceptable, with 64 per cent against.

Mr. Oliver said he hadn't seen the poll, nor its specific questions, so he wouldn't comment on it.

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"I've heard a variety of opinions on this issue and obviously the government takes into account the opinions of Canadians," said the minister.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair jumped on Mr. Oliver's comments to say the government must hold public consultations as it drafts new criteria for foreign takeovers of Canadian companies, especially by state-owned enterprises.

"If he says that he cares about public opinion then he should sit down and listen to the public," said Mr. Mulcair.

Liberal interim leader Bob Rae said the expectations have to be "comprehensible to the investor," adding the Harper government has him baffled.

"It doesn't take any leadership to put your finger in your mouth, wet your finger and hold it up in the air and see which way the wind is blowing — and say that's our policy," saidMr.  Rae. "How can anybody do business with a government that has that kind of an attitude?"

Mr. Rae agreed that public consultations on new rules are needed, with a caveat.

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"But I don't think — and I say this very directly — I don't think xenophobia has any place or part in how we deal with or treat investments," said the Liberal.

Mr. Oliver wouldn't bite on published reports that the government is considering a new two-track set of criteria that would address both state-owned enterprises and more traditional, free-market models.

"I really can't get into that," said Mr. Oliver. "The prime minister was very clear that there was going to be a policy framework and when that comes out I'd be happy to discuss it."

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