Vital part of Potash decision is it was Saskatchewan's

November 18, 2010 - Ray Pennings

For the degree to which it is discussed and debated, it is remarkable how little attention a significant shift in power can receive when it happens right before our eyes.

The decision by federal Industry Minister Tony Clement to decline approval for Australian resource giant BHP Billiton's bid for Potash Corp. drew a lot of attention, little if any of which seemed to absorb the significance of how it vividly illustrated the nation's new political reality.

Many expressed dismay that a government in the control of a party dedicated to the principle of open borders to trade would say "no" to the $38.6-billion offer. Clement's decision was ripped apart by editorialists, free market think-tanks and others of fundamentalist-libertarian views. Applause came from Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, supported by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, and if polls are to be believed, more than 80 per cent of Saskatchewanians who were delighted that Clement was persuaded by the argument that potash constitutes a strategic national resource. Senior business leaders in Alberta such as Dick Haskayne had, after all, argued the takeover could be the thin edge of a wedge that could cost Canada to lose commercial control over other vital resource-based projects such as the oilsands. Making life easier for the government was that its federalist opponents in Parliament -- Michael Ignatieff's Liberals and Jack Layton's New Democrats -- had already identified themselves as being as opposed to the takeover, too.

Political commentators offered the expected and deserved wry phrases and cynical grins concerning how the government had abandoned its principles in favour of the expediency Conservatives claimed to so disdain about Liberals.

Here's what's so unique and takes this story beyond the travails of a minority government: we were not debating the bailout of the auto industry in Ontario, a province that rarely appears in political commentary without the adjective "vote-rich" attached to it. Nor were we fussing over the cultural industry in "volatile" Quebec, where the artistic collective has usurped the Catholic Church as sacred defender of the francophone language and its people.

We were talking about nouveau "vote-rich" Saskatchewan and its "volatile" 14 members of Parliament (13 Conservatives and one Liberal).

Think for a moment. Think for a while. Think for a long time. When do you last recall all three federal parties determining that the strongly held views of the people of Saskatchewan were powerful enough to tip the balance in a matter of national economic or any other importance?

You can't, can you? This is our new reality.

The dominance of the Bloc Quebecois, which holds 47 of Quebec's 75 seats in the House of Commons, is so entrenched that federal parties only have 28 MPs from that province, which is just slightly more than the total number, 26, from Manitoba and Saskatchewan which, by the way, has a bigger government caucus than Quebec.

Further informing this is that as of the 2006 election, the three westernmost provinces -- B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan -- combine to send more MPs (77) to Ottawa than Quebec, with only 75. All of this was, until last week, something that articulated itself in politics alone as the Ontario-Quebec bargain that had dominated Canada's first 130 years faded into history's rear-view mirror and the era of powerful regional interests began.

Think, after all, of Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams's campaign against the Conservatives in the 2008 federal election. And now this: the BHP Billiton decision translated those politics into policy.

Saskatchewan and its fraternal twin, Alberta, were provinces born in 1905 as children of a lesser god and battled throughout their youth for that which they did not have and other provinces did -- resources rights. Thus are resource issues and control permanently etched into their cultural psyches.

In retrospect, and given that Britain's Margaret Thatcher was in the same years masterfully smoothing the way for privatization of Crown corporations through the creation of a single, but powerful "Golden Share" retained by the Crown, Saskatchewan perhaps should have employed that strategy when Potash Corp. was initially privatized in 1989.

It didn't, however, and thus does Canada's long-standing debate over foreign ownership continue.

Whether the BHP Billiton decision was a good call or a bad call, what may be most significant -- perhaps even historic -- about it is that when all is said and done it was Saskatchewan's call. And that is something very, very new.

Posted in Politics.

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Originally Published

date: November 18, 2010
publisher: The Calgary Herald