Nobody lost an election in Canada this week. But, as in the US, change is afoot.
Stephen Harper lost his most competent minister, Jim Prentice, and his most trustworthy political ally, British Columbia’s Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell. And most importantly, he was publicly out-talked, out-campaigned, and successfully cornered by a rising political star in his own political base and partisan home—Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan.
Looking at the bald facts of the issue—should the Government of Canada reject a $40 some billion hostile bid for Potash Corp of Saskatchewan—you’d imagine that everyone would carefully play their fated roles. (Most people in Saskatchewan didn’t like the idea; Premier Wall would have to oppose it, and Harper also needs Saskatchewan to stay solidly Conservative in his next election.) However, Premier Wall doesn’t seem to play “damage control.” Using all means available to him (provincial alliance-building, speech-making, media interviews, and public lobbying in Ottawa), he set out to redefine how we treat foreign investment. He cut off efforts to sweeten the bid and forced Harper to mutely do what his logic and his principles could not embrace.
The impact of Wall’s short, dazzling campaign brings to light important public policy and political issues.
Brad Wall isn’t bilingual but he uses the English language wonderfully. And seemingly, he has the ambition to take a national leadership role in setting national conservative economic policy. With or without silk ties, Thomas Friedman’s one-liners, or conscious intent, he’s pushing conservatism back to a more interventionist approach. This is well within the political traditions of western Canada. As events this week reveal, Harper’s more rigid laissez-faire approach is extremely vulnerable to populist challenge.
Of course, for now, Wall may have put more wind in the sails of Michael Ignatieff than his own brand in the Conservative Party. Nevertheless, what Canada’s cosmopolitan business leaders thought was a national consensus on foreign investment has turned out to be not much more than an agreement to talk about other things, for now.
It’s refreshing to see a politician enjoying a honeymoon with the national press. However, the attacks on BHP Billiton’s bid by Wall and his allies received precious little effective scrutiny. For instance, on October 26th, Wall volunteered in a letter to the Financial Post that “if forced into this merger, we will use our resource-taxing authority to recoup losses that occur.”
Then, what power over the people’s resource was in jeopardy? Wouldn’t the new shareholders want to maximize the value of this resource? What is “strategic” anyway about rocks that the people own and can’t physically be smuggled out of the province without being taxed? If rocks are “strategic,” then why not finite reserves of conventional natural gas and oil? Since people are our most precious and mobile resource, should we raise the bar on foreign takeovers across the high-tech sector?
It is ironic that Wall captured the support of the other western Canadian premiers, except Gordon Campbell. For forty years, western leaders argued that the West’s development and diversification demanded both clear provincial ownership of resources and free trade in capital, as well as people. They won both arguments and the West has led Canada’s development since.