A sweeping trade deal similar to the tentative agreement Canada has with the European Union wouldn't be possible with China, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday.
Speaking to an audience at the Toronto campus of Western University's Ivey School of Business, Harper said there are big opportunities for trade with Asia, but that countries such as India, China and South Korea aren't making the same style of deal as the one Canada has tentatively reached with the EU.
"Making progress on any one of those fronts would be important," Harper said. "But I think the fact of the matter is no one country in the world would have or would expect to have as comprehensive a deal as we have with the EU with China today.
"There would be no prospect of an agreement this deep and this comprehensive with one of those countries. That's just not their kind of model."
Harper also insisted the government needs the ability to judge individual investment bids by state-owned enterprises. Canadians don't want to see entire sectors becoming state-owned industries, he said.
"I think it would be foolish for the Canadian government to provide absolute clarity," he said.
Last December the government approved a bid by China’s CNOOC to buy Calgary-based Nexen, but signalled any future bids by state-owned foreign companies in the oilsands would only be approved on an ‘’exceptional basis.’’
Harper said he's aware of the experiences of Canadian investors around the world, adding Canada is one of the most rules-based systems in the world.
Robert Kennedy, dean of the London, Ont. university's business school, led the question and answer session with Harper.
Kennedy raised a host of topics, from the impact of Canada’s stronger dollar is having on investment in this country, to Harper’s assessment of the global economic recovery.
Harper seized the opportunity to plug Canada’s recovery.
‘’I tell you, when I go to these international meetings and meets heads of government whether they're from advanced or emerging countries, there’s virtually no head of government who wouldn’t prefer to be in my position than the one they’re in. That’s a pretty positive measure.’’
Concern over debt, skilled workers
Harper says Canada can, and needs, to do better on a number of fronts. He said he’s concerned by the debt levels of some provinces, but suggested he’s not as concerned about the level of household debt in Canada.
“I don’t think we should exaggerate the problem. The fundamental reason people have increased their borrowing is that it’s cheap to increase your borrowing.’’
Harper did acknowledge that more needs to be done to improve the competitiveness of the Canadian economy, including the shortage of skilled workers in key industries.
He says employers know there’s a skills mismatch, especially in Western Canada, where investment decisions are being delayed out of concerns about the workforce.
‘’So these are real issues that have to be dealt with.’’
Journalists were allowed to cover the first 30 minutes in which Harper answered Kennedy's questions, but were kicked out for the student question and answer session.
Harper appeared relaxed throughout the public portion of the meeting, returning frequently to the theme that Canada’s economy continues to out-perform most other nations.
He was most expansive in discussing the tentative trade deal with the European Union, acknowledging much of the impact remains uncertain until it is finalized.
Still, Harper says the government doesn’t think there are obvious losers in the deal, but Ottawa is committed to assist provinces where there are, including Canada’s cheesemakers and the fish-processing industry.
And he didn’t forget his audience of business students.
"I’m convinced Canadian business and industry — including universities — will see lots of opportunity."