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Potash decision shows Harper's savvy Add to ...

Ottawa's decision on the BHP bid for Potash looks on the surface like a simple calculation of political risk: The Harper government wanted to avoid taking hits among moderate economic nationalists and populist Conservatives in the Prairies.

But that analysis understates that this is a more complex time when it comes to global investment flows, and our political leaders probably are well advised to craft a new consensus on how Canadians want to deal with such matters.

Canadians have become far more pragmatic and less reflexively nationalistic when it comes to ownership and investment rules. This evolution was driven both by a sense that resistance to globalization trends would be futile, and probably counter productive, and by a growing confidence that Canada can hold its own or better in a freer economic environment.

In many sectors of the economy, voters now think attracting investment to Canada is a far more important to their interests than rules about ownership levels, locations of head office, etc.

But there is uneasiness and uncertainty about what kind of national policy we need when it comes to two types of situations: where important strategic assets are involved, and/or when sovereign state investors are involved.

Most Canadians don't want government to err on the side of rejecting more investments, in fact they generally continue to want more investment flows into Canada. The Potash proposal was seen as different from investment proposals in sectors like retail, telecommunications, steel, or oil, that trigger no real public resistance.

The Harper government has surmised that it is best not to be forced to look at every such situation in isolation, and that what's needed is a more durable public consensus about how best, in this century, to blend the national interest and a free-market orientation. Their instinct to concentrate some new policy thinking and welcome public views in this area is good politics.

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