Wall scores political points in potash decision: pundit
Saskatchewan premier in the 'national spotlight'
Brad Wall's passionate performance over a proposed takeover of the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan solidifies the premier's position as a marquee talent on the Canadian political scene, A Regina political science professor says .
"This has put Wall in a national spotlight that certainly he hasn't really had before and I think he appears to be quite conscious of that and of how one behaves when you're in the national spotlight," said Prof. Tom McIntosh, head of the political science department at the University of Regina.
"That's not necessarily a bad thing."
On Wednesday, federal Industry Minister Tony Clement sided with the Saskatchewan premier to reject, for now, Australian mining giant BHP Billiton's $40 billion US bid for PotashCorp, which is based in Saskatoon and operates six mines in the province.
In making the case against the takeover, Wall shunned his free market principles and wrapped himself in the Canadian flag calling potash, a mineral used to make fertilizer, a "strategic natural resource."
Wall, the small-c conservative leader of the Saskatchewan Party, has flirted with being a national political force in the past. His recent push to fund clinical trials of a controversial multiple sclerosis treatment called liberation therapy raised his profile. So did his pitch for a nuclear research reactor to replace Chalk River.
Wall's folksy charm and ease in front of a microphone have led some commentators to suggest he may be prime ministerial material one day — something he has unequivocally dismissed.
Wall swept to office in 2007 while extending an olive branch to Ottawa — which had a strained relationship with the province's former NDP government. Wall said his party, an amalgamation of former Conservatives and Liberals, would "give peace a chance."
The PotashCorp deal put that peace to the test.
With the prime minister sending signals that his government may allow the purchase, Wall used a speech to the Regina Chamber of Commerce two weeks ago as his rallying cry. He deplored the takeover as anti-Saskatchewan and anti-Canadian, calling on the federal government to show courage and reject it.
Wall argued that Saskatchewan could lose between $3 billion and $6 billion in revenue over 10 years from taxes and royalties if BHP's bid were successful. He also said Canada's strategic interests would be put at risk if it sold most of its potash industry to an international company.
Rhetoric rises on eve of decision
The premier ramped up the rhetoric when he said that it would be a betrayal of the province if media reports Tuesday were true that federal officials had already tentatively approved the takeover.
McIntosh noted that the premier was "very careful" in his response to the decision Wednesday.
"He was talking about thanking Minister Clement, thanking him for listening to Saskatchewan," McIntosh said. "Some of that is, I think, repairing some damage that might have been done to the relationship, but also it's reinforcing the idea that when this 30-day waiting period is over, it better still be 'no.'
"At least on this issue, it looks like Brad Wall was heard."
It's only the second time Ottawa has blocked a foreign takeover outright under the Investment Canada Act. Clement said he rejected the bid because it does not present a likely net benefit to Canada.
Wall said the net benefit test was applied and he believes the decision was made on principle, not pressure.
"The minister made this decision alone as is the process spelled out by Investment Canada," Wall said. "So in terms of the relationship with Canada, I think it reinforces confidence that people should have in this province that the country can work."
"I don't think all the political pressure in the world would have influenced the minister from his decision that he came to today. That's just my sense," Wall told reporters at the provincial legislature in Regina.
"I think that they made an analysis on net benefit and came to their decision notwithstanding political considerations. I think they came to that decision for all the right reasons."
Politics played a role
However, McIntosh said he believes political pressure had to play a role in the decision.
"I have to think that between the Saskatchewan politicians showing up in Ottawa, the probable conversations held with the Conservative caucus from Saskatchewan, I think the number of people who lined up on Brad Wall's side on this from outside of the province — the former premiers, the business leaders in Calgary — all of those people had to have had [an influence].
"I think the political calculation was, 'This could be costly if we do this.' "
So fervent was Wall's defence, there was suggestion that at least some of the Conservatives' 13 seats in the province could be in trouble.
"I think the reality was the prime minister saw himself facing an absolutely impenetrable wall of political opposition," said Ralph Goodale, the only Liberal MP from Saskatchewan.
"You could tell by the body language in some of the back corner conversations that they [Saskatchewan Conservatives] were extremely worried because they would have been hearing the same thing from their constituents that I was hearing from mine. And that is, 'This is a bridge too far. This is wrong.' "