CNOOC bid presents imperfect conservative decision-making

Some political issues are black and white, many others aren’t so perfectly distinguishable. The Conservative Party in Canada has had a long history of its prominent members opposing the communist Chinese regime. From MP Rob Anders’ alarm-raising of Chinese tactics that try to lure Canadian government officials with junkets to — and honey traps in — the world’s most populous nation, to Jason Kenney’s visit China to the home of Zhao Ziyang, a former senior Chinese official who was under house arrest for his push for democratization. The flare-up of the conservative base against spending tax dollars to build a visitor’s centre for the Bethune Centre in Tony Clement’s riding was but the most recent example. The most notable prior commemoration of Bethune in Canada had been fully funded by the Chinese Communist Party — a statue in Montreal.

Senior Canadian politicians — after retirement — have been actively engaging with China. Jean Chretien is said to have active business interests in the country, while Stockwell Day is the latest to add heft to the building of business relations with the Middle Kingdom.

One senior official in the Harper government remarked to me that Canada’s position on China is changing and the latest outreach to China indicates an ability to “walk and chew gum” at the same time. Presumably, Canada remains committed to human rights in China while looking to build Canada’s long-term economic interests in that country.

One result of walking the economic relationship along has been the announcement of China’s state-owned CNOOC announcing a $15 billion bid for Canada’s Nexen, an energy company actively developing Canadian oilsands. Such a sale would increase Chinese control to a 20% level of all Canadian oilsands projects.

Many factors are at play here. Regarding foreign investment in Canadian natural resources, the sought to formalize the policy in legislation.

The Canadian government has yet to approve the Nexen sale under the Canadian Investment Act, however, it appears that it is bullish with respect to Sino-Canadian capital investment.

“Canada is a country that welcomes foreign investment,” International Trade Minister Ed Fast said in Toronto on Tuesday. “We have rigorous review mechanisms in place that ensure that any investments that are made in Canada are in Canada’s net benefit and in our national interest and I’m confident the process will work.”

That’s certainly clearer signally from the government than we saw in the weeks leading up to the Billiton decision.

Clearer still is the Harper’s aggressive tack since on natural resources since forming a majority just last year. A key theme has been a full-speed ahead order on oil, gas, and mining (codenamed “Responsible Resource Development” in EAP-speak). Besides shepherding a projected doubling of oilsands projects over the next ten years, finding new markets and building transmission capacity (read: pipelines) are the domestic economic issues that are keeping the Prime Minister up at night.

And what of Stephen Harper’s small-c conservative base on the Nexen sale? No doubt, the business community welcomes open borders on trade. Yet, the anti-communists cannot be too happy about the PM’s softening stance on China. We’ve seen some deft manoeuvring by a few conservative editorialists to stake out a principled position on the issue. Conservative-minded individuals abhor the nationalization of anything, let alone Canada’s natural resources. But conservatives must stress that Canada is open for business. The CNOOC bid is therefore seen in an anti-market, state-corporatist light: this is the nationalization of Canadian natural resources by a foreign nation.

It is largely expected that the sale will be approved.

Canadian history (pre-1982)

Today marks the bicentennial anniversary of the beginning of hostilities during the War of 1812. The war between the Americans and British for what is now modern-day Canada was a formative event in our history for who were are as a people, it marked a heroic win for British forces in holding the line against the American incursion, and helped defined the politics of our young country and raison-d’etre of its formation. The conflict lasted nearly three years and claimed about 15,000 lives.

Streetlamps in Ottawa are marked with banners commemorating the 200 years since the event. As a significant element of our national heritage, it is being recognized as such with a national public awareness campaign by the Minister of Heritage and Prime Minister Stephen Harper which includes new stamps and minted coins, celebrations during Canada Day, and commemorative deployment of the Royal Canadian Navy to Canadian and US ports.

The War of 1812 represents an important aspect of this Prime Minister’s rebranding of our national image at home. For years, “Canada” was based upon a Trudeaupian narrative hatched out of Ottawa from successive decades of the central Canadian establishment consensus. What made a Canadian a “Canadian” was the fact that he had universal healthcare, and had a well-funded national public broadcaster. Indeed, we were more defined by the nation-building done by our legislators, than by that done by the heroism of hundreds of thousands who put their lives on the line in defense of Crown and country.

Conservatives look to our history and see the individual heroism that defines us while liberals look to our “social history”.

In Ottawa, the chattering classes have been treating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 with disdain, suggesting that recognizing it either costs too much or that it is crass political posturing. To be sure, part of the legacy of this government will be in its recognition of Canadian symbols and history long airbrushed out by Canada’s establishment elite. Consider the push-back received when the Minister of Foreign Affairs wanted to restore the place of the Queen’s portrait in DFAIT and in our missions around the world. And what of the establishment freak-out of the restoration of the royal moniker to branches of our military despite widespread excitement among active personnel? Hundreds of thousands served their country under the “royal” designation. The government’s act was broadly seen (outside of Ottawa) as a restoration of pride. Consider too, the bellyaching heard ’round the Ottawa bubble when Conservatives passed on throwing a ticker-tape parade for the hardly notable 30th anniversary of the Charter.

The 200th anniversary of a war which helped define the formation of Canada may have happened long before 1982 when some in Ottawa believe that Pierre Elliot Trudeau granted us collective and individual rights. The perceived snub of this social history caused great consternation among national columnists and their friends in the Liberal Party, while the recognition of our men and women that serve our country with greater bravery than most of us will ever muster is seen as a waste or a spectacle.

Today, we recognize our nation-builders past and present who guaranteed the rights and freedoms that a pirouetting charlatan in a cape with a rose in lapel would later “liberate” for us to the great admiration of cynics who believe that Canada’s definition stems from governance, not from its glory.

Christy Clark’s missed opportunity

Tom Mulcair has had a busy week. In his first real outing on the national stage on any policy issue of pan-Canadian importance he chose to entangle energy, regions, the manufacturing sector, and the environment. Melange became malaise as Mulcair designed his prognostication to polarize.

In short, according to Mulcair, manufacturing jobs in central Canada suffer from a high dollar caused by energy exports. Exploiting the oilsands in Alberta and building pipelines to ship processed bitumen south and west is boosting the strength of the dollar. Mulcair calls it ‘Dutch Disease’.

Though without a reasonable diagnosis or plan for treatment, his strategy is quite transparent. The NDP has a tenuous hold on the seats from what many have called an accidental victory for the party in Quebec. Showing up as Quebec’s defender is a role conceded within the last decade by the federal Liberal Party, and Mulcair is digging in, and pouring the concrete to reinforce the foundation.

The NDP leader’s wedging from Outremont was a welcome opportunity for western premiers, whom Mulcair dismissed as “messengers” for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall warmed up his twitter and Facebook accounts to throw haymakers in defence the prairie province’s resource extraction industry.

For Wall, whose party captured 64.2% of the popular vote in the last provincial election, standing up for his province was more of a pleasure than a necessity, as his main opponents in the Saskatchewan NDP are lagging far behind.

Moving west, Alberta’s newly elected majority Premier Alison Redford — comfortably settling without much concern for imminent electoral survivability — passively mustered that Mulcair’s comments were “divisive and ill-informed”.

Yet, westward still, where we see a Premier in the fight for her political life in BC, with a surging NDP topping 50% in provincial polls, with an economy fixed firmly in the resource sector pipelines ready, it’s mostly quiet. Christy Clark’s finance minister did dismiss the “ignorant” remarks of Tom Mulcair, and the premier did call Mulcair’s position “goofy”, however, she has been absent from the province on a trade mission overseas and comparatively absent on the issue.

Resource sector jobs are inextricably linked to the BC economy. There have been talks or rebranding Clark’s party to recapture the pro-business and pro-development segments of the successful coalition that has kept her party in power. A perfect opportunity was presented to allow Clark to emerge as the most vocal defender of Western interests. Clark wasn’t just weak on brand, she was largely off-grid.

The federal NDP leader is making shrewd if cynical strategy dividing regions against each other but in the end it will likely pay political dividends for him. The other winners in this dance have been the Premiers with the least to gain while Premier Clark — facing a desperately dire political situation at home — has missed her chance to enrich her electability from this latest entanglement.