Opposition parties are trying to slam the brakes on the Harper government's deal-making with China, saying Canadians deserve a full airing of a major foreign corporate takeover and a far-reaching investment agreement before decisions are set in stone.
Backed by Liberal and Green Party MPs, the New Democrats unsuccessfully sought to pass a motion Tuesday that would have required the government to hold parliamentary committee hearings on a $15.1-billion bid by CNOOC Ltd., a Chinese state-owned energy company, for Calgary oil company Nexen Inc.
The opposition parties are also demanding the government refer to committee and debate the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement in the House of Commons, which will allow companies operating in either country to sue host governments for allegedly discriminatory measures.
"I think Canadians and Canadian business would welcome expanded economic relations with China, but the government's approach is secretive, unaccountable and in some cases reckless," NDP trade critic Don Davies said in an interview.
In the Commons debate Tuesday, critics argue the Nexen deal raises serious concerns about national security and the country's ability to control its resource development, and complained the government had promised more open foreign investment reviews two years ago but has failed to deliver on that pledge.
The government has a deadline of mid-October – with a 30-day extension possible – to rule on the takeover, which has drawn support from Nexen shareholders, from oil industry executives and from Alberta Premier Alison Redford. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said Tuesday that Ottawa would, at the same time, publish new guidelines to "provide greater clarity" around federal policy on foreign investment.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair complained about a lack of reciprocity in the proposed Nexen deal and the broader investment agreement.
"Canadian investors would never be allowed to buy the raw natural resources of China," he told reporters. "So there's something terribly wrong with a government that keeps signing these deals where we pass for chumps, where they get something that we don't get."
Canadian and Chinese negotiators laboured for years to conclude the FIPPA deal, which falls well short of the sweeping trade and investment agreements like the North American free-trade agreement or the deal being sought with the European Union. Prime Minister Stephen Harper signalled the agreement was essentially concluded when he visited China in February, and then signed the deal in July during a meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao at a summit in Vladivostok, Russia.
The government tabled it in the House of Commons last week, and it will come into force after 21 parliamentary sitting days.
"This is an agreement that actually improves access for Canadian investors into China and provides protection for their investments," Trade Minister Ed Fast said Tuesday.
Under the agreement, the governments agree to promote bilateral investment. They promised to provide the same level of protection for one another's foreign investors that they would to their own companies – but only to those already operating in their territories and not to those wanting to make new investments.
The deal will also allow corporations or governments to challenge the actions of the other government in front of dispute-settlement panels, but makes no commitment that the proceedings will be public. Instead, it will be up to the defending government to decide whether to open the process to public scrutiny. That's a departure from Canada's longstanding policy of ensuring there is a public record of such dispute hearings, said Milos Barutciski, a lawyer with Bennett Jones LLP.
With a report from Tavia Grant