Good instincts, poor delivery
Even when he gets things right, Prime Minister Steven Harper can’t help but get key bits wrong.
I believe his instinct to let the Chinese national oil company (CNOOC) invest directly in Canada’s oilsands is correct.
I also think the way he did the deal to let that happen is deeply troubling.
Canada needs all the investment dollars we can get to exploit this crucial resource.
Nexen, the target company, is not huge by international standards, and neither are its oilsands holdings.
CNOOC offered $15.1 billion to buy Nexen, considerably more than the stock market thought the company was worth.
About two-thirds of Nexen’s revenue last year came from outside Canada.
By comparison, investors — mostly foreigners — spent about $40 billion last year to develop our oilsands.
Way more than that sum will be needed every year for generations to properly develop this vital resource — $65 billion annually for the next decade, according to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.
Energy development is the chief driver of our national economy and will remain so for decades to come, if managed properly.
There’s no compelling reason why state-owned companies should not be part of that mix.
At the same time, there’s no good reason why Canadians should be denied a basic understanding of the terms for the Nexen sale, and others going forward.
In approving the Nexen-CNOOC deal last week, Harper said it was an exceptional one, which would not likely be repeated.
New rules will soon be created for state-owned energy investments, he added.
The prime minister said his government has obliged CNOOC to make some very particular undertakings to win approval for the sale.
But he refuses to publicly detail those commitments. If you want to know, he said, ask CNOOC.
He needs to do better than that.
This was more than your garden-variety commercial transaction.
More particularly, Albertans should know what he has given China on our behalf.
Unexploited bitumen in the ground belongs to Albertans, not to Canada and not to petroleum companies, be they foreign, domestic, privately held or publicly owned.
Albertans don’t know the facts today mostly because of the prime minister’s overweening need for control and demand for secrecy in public affairs.
It’s barely a month since he travelled covertly from Ottawa to the farthest reaches of eastern Russia — way closer to Beijing than to Moscow — to sign a secret trade deal with China.
That agreement was made on foreign soil, in a country led by a ruthless thug, with a nation led by equally savage leaders, without the knowledge of Canadians, our Parliament, and probably the vast majority of Harper’s own Conservative caucus.
We have no understanding of what deal Harper made on our behalf.
For the Chinese, this is business as usual.
For Canadians, the way the deal was engineered was an affront to our democratic sensibilities.
Harper seems confident doing business with the Chinese, because he shares some of their bully-boy traits. He has a plan and only rarely feels the need to explain it comprehensively to Canadians.
That’s mean spirited and ultimately destructive to democracy and to the nation.
Canada is a huge country with a small population.
We need foreign money to properly develop our vast resources.
We also need a leader who is willing to inform and trust Canadians about what he is doing on our behalf.
The Chinese, with no democratic traditions whatsoever, are overly fond of their penchant for secrecy.
They say it’s part of their “inscrutable nature,” developed over millennia.
When Harper insists on unwarranted secrecy in a trade deal with a foreign nation — even when his motives are sound — it’s not charming inscrutability.
It raises questions about whether we are about to get screwed.
Joe McLaughlin is the retired managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.