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Saturday, December 18, 2010 

Saskatchewan Political Columnist Catches Harper And Conservatives Playing Games With The Truth

BHP Potash deal: Facts Point To Political Factors
"A political insider familiar with federal Conservative ranks says Prime Minister Stephen Harper starts each day with a pretty thorough assessment of his seats and what events might have caused them to be more or less winnable.

This shouldn't be all that surprising. From the majority-obsessed Harper, we've seen political considerations slip into virtually every policy decision from cutting the GST to Afghanistan to set election debates to abandoning Saskatchewan's request to remove natural resources from the equalization formula.

So why would anyone have trouble believing that politics played a key role in the 11th-hour decision to nix the BHP Billiton takeover of PotashCorp?

Well, one suspects the only ones who don't really believe that are the Conservative and their self-appointed operatives.

Of course, one gets federal Industry Minister Tony Clement's amusingly hyperbolic defense that it's a "fable" that there was a last-minute change to the BHP Billiton approval and that he never actually changed position at all. (He seems well-acquainted with the once-upon-a-time stories, like the one that his decision to scrap the long form census was developed in concert with Statistic Canada.) A politician can't let a story like this go unchallenged.

One even gets that modern-day political debate now includes self-appointed agents for the federal Conservative government who will defend the Conservatives from any criticism.

But let's re-examine the sequence of events that led to the potash decision. And for anybody troubled by the notion that this has come to light from well-placed anonymous sources offering their insight, let's simply restrict this debate to what we know as fact.

Fact: Harper's very first utterance was that this was "an Australian company taking over an American company." The later explanation, according to Saskatoon Humboldt MP Brad Trost, was that the prime minister had received bad speaking notes. (Other sources claim the notes were fine, but Harper was determined to make a philosophical statement.)

Fact: Harper's statement was the first source of exasperation for Premier Brad Wall and his Saskatchewan Party government, which continually raised concerns that the federal government didn't seem to be getting Saskatchewan's position that there was "no net benefit" in the takeover.

Fact: One of Clement's few public pronouncements during the process was that he didn't agree the takeover would cost Saskatchewan tax dollars because it was the federal minster's belief that BHP Billiton likely wouldn't go ahead with the Jansen mine. Wall insisted BHP offered everyone assurances Jansen would proceed. So if Clement didn't ever change his mind on the net benefit question, he evidently arrived at the same place as Wall by coming from the polar opposite direction.

Fact: The newspaper The Australian was reporting that Investment Canada had recommended the BHP Billiton bid and it and PotashCorp "had both been given indications the deal would be passed" before the last-minute political consideration came into play.

Fact: Both the Globe and Mail and former Postmedia columnist Don Martin reported that Ottawa was approving the deal with conditions.

Fact: Wall so believed Martin's column that the Saskatchewan premier used the word "betrayal" the day it was published. (Presumably, Wall or somebody in his government would have phoned Ottawa and asked: "Is Martin's column true?")

Yes, Conservative apologists scoff that the federal government would nix a $40-billion to prove Martin wrong. They are being deliberately misleading. The issue was never retribution for a column. It was the need to disprove any leaks had occurred for fear of lawsuits or an investigation into breaches of the Investment Canada and Securities Act, similar to what plagued former Liberal finance minister Ralph Goodale during the Income Trust affair.

Fact: Reporters were initially told BHP Billiton was making the announcement and that Clement would only react to it.

Fact: MPs like Trost were saying that morning that they didn't know what Brad Wall wanted.

Fact: The provincial government had no formal response prepared for a rejection of the bid.

No last minute change? The facts and political track record sure suggest otherwise.

- Mandryk is the Leader-Post political columnist.
Murray Mandryk
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