For Conservatives gathering here tomorrow for their summer strategy session, the simmering controversy over the bankruptcy sale of Nortel Networks poses a puckish question: Is it reasonable to expect a minority federal government to walk and chew gum at the same time?
Walking in politics is winning and the current ruling party has now accomplished that twice. Chewing is advancing the national interest and Conservatives, in sorry contrast to the best of their minority predecessors, have yet to get the hang of it.
After three-plus years in power, Stephen Harper’s party is more proficient at politics than policy. Whether waiting patiently for a majority to impose core beliefs or accepting compromise as the price of power, the result is the same.
Decisions that change the country for better or worse are influenced more by the search for partisan advantage than the public good.
Run a moist finger down the list of Conservative priorities and find Conservative demographics. Twice trimming the GST, positioning punishment at the centre of criminal justice and spending big on the military are as popular with the party base as an aggressive green plan, a balanced foreign policy or best-and-brightest education and industrial strategies are not.
That’s understandable, familiar and fair enough. As Brian Mulroney memorably observed, “Ya gotta dance with those that brung ya.”
So it’s really no surprise the Prime Minister is rushing public billions to the rescue of the multinational auto giants while making it easy for foreigners to buy what’s left of Canadian icon Nortel.
Not just the dominant industry in Ontario, the province that decides federal elections, the auto sector also employs many thousands of those ordinary, hard-working, tax-paying folks Harper talks about so often.
On the other hand, Nortel’s payroll is largely offshore and those who do work here are not stereotypical Conservative voters.
There are other reasons why this government waited until yesterday to show any interest in a Canadian solution to the Nortel problem.
Accounting scandals, the sickening plunge from stock market heights that hurt so many small investors and the company’s failure to build support for a new business model all make it easier for Ottawa to turn away than get involved.
Whatever the rationale or the politics, the national interest is best served by bringing a fitter, more competitive and Canadian Nortel out of bankruptcy.
That isn’t going to happen if a foreign firm, with $300 million in help from Export Development Corp., is allowed to own Nortel’s most valuable wireless assets. It won’t happen if Conservatives, fixated on narrow politics, lose sight of what’s broadly important for the country.
As the Science, Technology and Innovation Council recognized in last year’s report, it’s essential to build on Canada’s competitive advantages. One of those is a company on the wireless cutting edge.
Conservatives owe it to our future to protect that asset. They can do it by putting the Ericsson purchase under foreign investment review long enough for Research In Motion, the Waterloo BlackBerry creators, and interested equity investors to prove they are ready and able to raise a viable phoenix from Nortel’s ashes.
That Industry Minister Tony Clement is now willing to at least consider scrutinizing the offshore purchase is a pin step in the right direction.
But Ottawa needs to chew long and hard before Canada spits out something of such sustaining national significance.
James Travers is a syndicated national affairs columnist for The Toronto Star.