Today, the federal NDP held a Parliament Hill press conference during which MPs Peter Julian and Hélène LeBlanc announced, for the first time, that New Democrats believe the federal government ought to reject a $15-billion bid by the Chinese state-owned firm CNOOC for the Calgary-based oil-and-gas producer Nexen.
In doing this, they certainly have public opinion on their side. Two Abacus Data polls commissioned by Sun News Network show the idea of the Chinese taking over Nexen is deeply unpopular in every region of the country and among supporters of all parties. (Poll 1 | Poll 2)
This was a boneheaded move politically from a party that, in my judgement, has made some otherwise very smart moves to counter any number of stereotypes its political opponents are trying to foster that an NDP government would kill jobs, investment and prosperity.
Let’s review what NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and his party have done recently to show to Canadians that today’s New Democrats can be good stewards of a large, complex economy like Canada’s:
- NDP International Trade Critic Don Davies has been pushing the Conservatives to sign a free trade deal with Japan. That’s a myth buster. Isn’t the NDP supposed to be against all free trade deals?
- The NDP want to “reinvigorate” World Trade Organization talks. Myth buster: Doesn’t free trade kill Canadian manufacturing?
- Mulcair gave a speech last week in Toronto calling for a new oil pipeline to bring Alberta oil east to Ontario where central Canadians can refine it. That’s a myth buster. Doesn’t Mulcair think Alberta oil is a “disease”?
- Faced with any number of “shiny objects” it could jump at in Question Period, Mulcair has had a relentless focus on economic and trade issues (at least until the latest meat crisis popped up) as his lead attack during the daily Question Period in the House of Commons. Go ahead and click through on the links from the first day of this fall session until the meat crisis took over the top spot on the opposition’s agenda on Oct. 1. Until then Mulcair was all economy, employment and Nexen: Sept 17 | Sept 18 | Sept 19 | Sept 20 | Sept 24 | Sept 25 | Sept 26 | Sept 27 | (Liberal leader Bob Rae, on his first day this fall in the House of Commons on Sept. 24 lead off his party’s section in QP with a big vote-winner: like, “Hey, Stephen, how come you won’t give a big speech at the United Nations?” Believe me, no unemployed or underemployed Canadian cares a whit if Harper is giving a speech at the UN.) Myth buster: The NDP don’t care about the economy, do they? Only the Conservatives do!
You may or may not buy any or all of these attempts by the NDP to look “serious and responsible” on economic and trade issues but the point is, unlike previous generations of New Democrats, their first instinct under Mulcair’s leadership has not been to stick their heads in the socialist sand and oppose any and all economic initiatives that Conservatives (or Liberals, for that matter) might propose. Indeed, when you’ve got the Governor of the Bank of Canada lighting you up for your “Dutch disease” diagnosis, take it is a compliment that you’re being taken very seriously.
Until, that is, the Nexen decision.
To outright reject the CNOOC takeover of Nexen sets that objective or looking “serious and responsible” back two steps and opens New Democrats up to easy criticism of the kind Prime Minister Stephen Harper made today during a joint news conference with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete:
“The NDP, as an ideologically socialist party, is opposed to all investments so their position on this is not a surprise. You know, we do have to remember as Canadians that a lot of jobs in this country, a lot of jobs and growth depend on the investments that come to this country. As well, Canada is a significant investor in other parts of the world, as we are in Tanzania. So, you know, our economy depends on the kind of jobs and growth that international investment flows create.”
Believe me, you’re going to hear a lot more of that now.
The NDP’s Nexen decision also makes it a lot easier for Mulcair’s political opponents to say they’re trying to strangle development of the Alberta oil sands.
Apart from that, the decision to oppose the Nexen deal kills any future NDP credibility on the Nexen file.
For one thing, until today, the NDP position had been to press the Harper government for public consultations on the Nexen takeover. On Tuesday, New Democrats put out a press release calling for public consultations on Nexen while Mulcair and other New Democrats were making that case in the House of Commons (click on any of the QP links above for examples). But now, two days after demanding public consultations on Nexen), the NDP says the deal should be rejected! Wait a minute: If the government should consult Canadians before taking a decision, shouldn’t the government-in-waiting, i.e. the NDP official opposition, also consult Canadians before taking a decision? Apparently not. That “ideologically socialist party,” to use Harper’s phrase, is plowing ahead and rejecting the decision.
So now, no matter what the government decides to do on the Nexen file, the NDP has neutered itself politically. The NDP can no longer criticize the government for failing to consult Canadians for the NDP failed to consult Canadians as well. And, so far as I know, we are still waiting for the NDP to put its stamp of approval on any deal — any deal of any size — in which a Canadian asset was about to pass into the hands of a foreign investor.
It could have been different for the NDP.
The NDP could, for example, stood up today and announced that they were ready to put their stamp of approval on the Nexen takeover so long as the government met some key conditions. These conditions could have been realistic or completely ridiculous but the point is the NDP would have been able to say it was in favour of resource development — even oil sands development — and foreign investment so long as that investment and development was on the NDP’s nationalist and environmental terms.
Had they done that, where would that have left the Conservatives?
Well, first of all, it would be tough for Harper to claim, as he did today, that the NDP are ideologically opposed to all foreign takeovers. New Democrats would have been able to say, “No, we’re not. We’re in favour of foreign investment. But our conditions protect Canadians. And in any event, you Conservatives were the first government in the history of our foreign investment review laws to ever reject foreign takeovers when you spiked the Macdonald Dettwiler and Potash deals. So who’s against foreign investment? Not us!”
But the New Democrats missed that opportunity. If the Conservatives go on to spike this deal, what can the NDP say? Can they criticize the government? Hardly. All they can do is congratulate it and no opposition party wants to be in that position. What if the Conservatives approve the deal with their own conditions? Well, the NDP missed the opportunity to sketch out their own conditions for approval. Had they done so, the NDP could conceivably have said, “We’re in favour of responsible resource development and foreign investment but you Conservatives didn’t do enough with your conditions to protect Canada’s interests. Our conditions would have done just that!” And, of course, if the Conservatives approve the deal with no conditions attaches, the NDP same argument above applies.
Meanwhile, the NDP now leaves the door open to the Liberals to come forward and say they like the Nexen deal but only if conditions they like are approved. So if the deal is spiked, Liberals can say that both New Democrats and Conservatives are ideologically opposed to a deal that would have put a ton of money into Canada’s economy. If the deal is approved either with conditions or without, the Liberals, like the Conservatives, can say New Democrats aren’t ready for prime-time because of their ideological blinders.
And so, despite its otherwise strategically smart work on economic and trade issues, the NDP has set itself back with today’s decision as it tries to convince Canadians that New Democrats are in favour of developing Canada’s resources, that they welcome foreign investment and that, in doing so, they can be good stewards of the economy.
Canadians, of course, will pass judgment on the work they do in that regard in 2015.