Sunday, November 07, 2010

Saskatchewan Conservative MP’s shameful behaviour continues; StarPhoenix potash flip-flop; Harper, not Clement, made final decision: Globe and Mail

BHP Billiton lobbyist registry communication report

Saskatchewan Conservative MP’s continue to embarrass themselves in the aftermath of Industry Minister Tony Clement’s decision on November 3, 2010, to reject BHP Billiton’s $38.6 US billion bid to take over Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan.

In a statement, Clement said he was not satisfied that the proposed transaction is likely to be of net benefit to Canada.

“I came to this decision after a careful and rigorous review of the proposed transaction. BHP Billiton has 30 days to make any additional representations and submit any undertakings.

“At the end of that period, I will make a final decision.”

Clement noted that confidentiality provisions of the Investment Canada Act prohibit him “from discussing specifics of an ongoing case” and that he “will provide an explanation of the reasons behind my final decision at the time that decision is made.”

BHP Billiton issued a news release acknowledging that Clement advised the company it “has 30 days or such further period as may be agreed to make further representations and undertakings to the Minister with respect to the Offer.”

“BHP Billiton is disappointed, but continues to believe that the Offer is of net benefit to Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Canada. BHP Billiton will continue to cooperate with the Minister and the Investment Review Division of Industry Canada and will review its options,” the release said.

The Globe and Mail’s Shawn McCarthy reported that despite Clement’s office insisting that he alone would make the decision; multiple sources close to government say Prime Minister Stephen Harper will certainly have the final word. [Potash shares wobble on uncertainty over bid (Globe and Mail, November 2, 2010)]

Saskatchewan Conservative MP’s remained in hiding, saying nary a word, right up until the bitter end.

“The “Saskatchewan 13” have so far refused to comment on BHP Billiton Ltd’s proposed takeover of Potash Corp., but they will be forced to defend it – with their jobs on the line – in the next election campaign should it be approved. And the opposition is salivating over the prospect,” the Globe and Mail said in a story on the potential political fallout.

“Rookie MP Kelly Block won Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar by a mere 262 votes over New Democrat Nettie Wiebe in 2008, and would appear to have the most to lose politically if Ottawa allows the takeover. A decision to block the deal would, conversely, boost Ms. Block’s hopes for re-election against a tough opponent.” [The political calculus in Saskatchewan (Globe and Mail, November 1, 2010)]

The disappearing act continued after Clement’s announcement when the StarPhoenix’s James Wood reported that, “Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the province’s senior Tory, and Saskatoon’s four Conservative MPs did not return messages seeking comment.” [Canada works’: Wall (StarPhoenix, November 4, 2010)]

In a “potash postmortem,” Leader-Post political columnist Murray Mandryk said the province’s MP’s “likely are getting too much credit” and the Saskatchewan NDP “not enough.”

Mandryk nailed the AWOL MP’s with this observation: “There is absolutely no evidence or any indication that Saskatchewan’s 13 Conservatives, who hid throughout this bid evaluation process, played any role.” [Sky didn’t fall, after all (StarPhoenix, November 5, 2010)]

Mandryk didn’t pull any punches in a column the previous day describing the final hours before Clement’s announcement when he painted the province’s Conservative MP’s as “unquestionably clueless and irrelevant to the very last moment.”

Mandryk added: “Scurrying into federal caucus early Wednesday, most only said: “No comment.” And the ones that did say anything offered nothing other than a frightful display of stupidity.

“Consider this gem Saskatoon–Humboldt MP Brad Trost offered reporters Wednesday morning: “Having heard this morning that Wall may have changed his position, I’m not sure what Brad Wall wants.” Huh? Wall changed his position when? You’re not sure what he wants?

“What it did show, however, is that this was not a harmonious, cohesive bunch with a single Saskatchewan message.” [Be thankful right decision made (StarPhoenix, November 4, 2010)]

Even more pathetic is Regina–Lumsden–Lake Centre MP Tom Lukiwski — with the StarPhoenix editorial board coming to his defense — crying that legal constraints are preventing MP’s from speaking publicly on the proposed takeover.

“We have been fully engaged on this file in Ottawa over the course of the last three months but because of the laws governing both the Securities Act and Investment Canada Act we really have been restricted from making any public commentary on it and that’s just the way the law is,” Lukiwski told Leader-Post reporter Angela Hall on November 4, 2010.

“I and my colleagues had several meetings with (Federal Industry Minister Tony) Clement and we certainly passed along all of the commentary that we were hearing from our constituents back home.”

Lukiwski’s lame excuse was blown out of the water when it was revealed that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the MP for Battlefords–Lloydminster, made this comment in the House of Commons earlier in the day: “Having someone different mine it (crop nutrient potash) certainly does make a difference in that Australia is a major marketer of a lot of the same foodstuffs that Canada is. We’re a volume producer -- so are they,” he said.

“And for them to be able to go to the Indias and Chinas of the world and say, ‘We now control your fertilizer, too,’ I think, would have had a very detrimental effect.”

Ritz’s office later issued a statement of clarification that said any comments on factors that were considered are only speculation. [MPs say they spoke on takeover (StarPhoenix, November 5, 2010)]

So in other words, MP’s are free to speculate.

Incredibly, the StarPhoenix tried to defend MP’s in a November 5, 2010, editorial saying a more open Investment Act process would “have allowed Saskatchewan’s 13 Conservative MPs, who were roundly criticized for failing to aggressively promote the interests of the province, to lobby more openly on behalf of their constituents. Although ostensibly legally bound to remain quiet for 30 days, the MPs finally found their voice on Thursday as they railed against their critics and opposition politicians.

“It was their work behind the scenes, not the pressure from the likes of sole Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, that turned the tide, insisted Regina Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski. Maybe so.

“A skeptical province graciously offers its gratitude.” [Investment act revamp needed for credibility (StarPhoenix, November 5, 2010)]

The StarPhoenix and Leader-Post failed its reader’s by not checking into Lukiwski’s claim. Had they done so, they would have found that it was bogus.

Section 36 of the Investment Canada Act relates to the disclosure of privileged information. Under section 36(1), all information obtained by Industry Canada in the course of the administration of the Act is confidential, and cannot be disclosed to a third party.

The key phrase here is privileged information. MP’s would certainly be free to talk about the issue provided they didn’t reveal any confidential details.

The same can be said for Saskatchewan’s Securities Act, which ensures the securities market is fair and protects the investing public. It is administered by the Saskatchewan Financial Services Commission - Securities Division.

Sections 15(1) and 152.1(1) speak to confidentiality and the non-disclosure of information, testimony, evidence, witness names, internal reports and records of the Commission. Again, common sense would prevail. Don’t reveal privileged information. Anything else would seem fair game. An experienced MP like Lukiwski would know this, but unfortunately he instead chose to mislead people into thinking he was not allowed to say anything at all.

The real reason for the MP’s silence is likely because they were told to keep their mouths shut by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The StarPhoenix’s support of the Saskatchewan Party government’s decision to oppose the BHP Billiton takeover bid is a complete reversal from two months ago.

Back on August 28, 2010, the editorial board blasted the Wall government for meddling in private business.

“If the Saskatchewan government believes it knows best how to manage a potash company, it should buy or build one,” the newspaper said.

“Otherwise -- and there is strong evidence to suggest that those corporations that are in the business and risking their own money can best decide how the industry works -- the Saskatchewan Party government should butt out of whatever deal BHP Billiton or any other potash company wants to make with primarily foreign investors.”

The editorial went on to say that Wall’s desire to see BHP commit to selling off-shore potash through Canpotex, a marketing co-operative that includes Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc., Mosaic Co. and Agrium Inc., was “an illogical position to take from any government but particularly so for one that has opposed the monopoly marketing of Prairie wheat through the Canadian Wheat Board.”

The newspaper even criticized Wall for worrying about jobs: “If the government believes high-quality jobs are essential for urban centres, it should use the proceeds from potash to create its own jobs.”

And then this little nugget: “Mr. Wall shouldn’t be so concerned about the wisdom of placing head office jobs in Saskatoon.”

And finally, the two closing paragraphs: “The provincial government should focus on its responsibilities, regulating and taxing industries in such a way to encourage economic development while protecting the environment and the workers.

“And if it wants to pass useless laws, it should make it illegal in Saskatchewan to claim to be free-market or free-trade capitalists while advocating for government meddling in private business.” [Province should keep hands off any potash deal (StarPhoenix, August 28, 2010)]

The StarPhoenix praised the Conference Board of Canada’s study of Saskatchewan’s potash industry released in early October as “well written” with “common sense” recommendations. The newspaper even downplayed the potential loss of the $2 billion in revenue over the next decade, should BHP’s takeover bid succeed. [Board analysis wise to suggest long-term view (StarPhoenix, October 5, 2010)]

The newspaper’s attitude began to shift right after Premier Brad Wall’s potash speech to the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce on October 21, 2010, at the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina, where he formally announced the province would say no to the BHP hostile takeover bid.

The next day, Terence Corcoran, editor of the Financial Post, unloaded a scathing op-ed likening Wall to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

“Did we miss the constitutional change — the one that created the Peoples’ Republic of Saskatchewan, with Brad Wall as el presidente?” Corcoran wrote.

Corcoran’s depiction of Wall and the province was brutal: “the head of some mosquito-ridden developing country” “the new socialist head of state” “a Third World shakedown” “cheap political grandstanding” “banana republic” and “President of Saskatchewan.” [Terence Corcoran: Saskatchewan as banana republic (National Post, October 22, 2010)]

From that moment on, the StarPhoenix seemed to adopt a weird, patriotic, rally around the premier and provincial flag tone. In the end, the newspaper backed both the Wall and Harper government’s decisions.

It’s important to note that the StarPhoenix (and Leader-Post) contributed $10,000 to the Saskatchewan Party in 2000. Granted, that’s a long time ago, but the optics of the donation is still significant. The conservative newspaper waited a long time for the right wing Saskatchewan Party to assume power. The last thing it wants is to see is Wall being dogged by potash issues in next year’s provincial election.

The same goes for the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, another huge supporter of the Saskatchewan Party. The business lobby group was even more invisible during the potash debate than the province’s Conservative MP’s.

The only word from the organization on the subject was a short, mild, statement from CEO Steve McLellan shortly after Wall’s Oct. 21 address: “While the Premiers announcement marks a certain point in the process, the process is still underway. We respect the objectives of both Potash Corp and BHP Billiton are to do what is in the best interests of their shareholders. We also respect the role of the Premier to do what his Government believes is in the best interests of the province.

“However, we believe that the negotiations between the two companies should be left to those companies and any undue interference by government only serves to undermine the jurisdiction’s ability to attract future investment and decreases the confidence of the markets in that jurisdiction.

“The offer is still in play and the decision of the Federal Government is still to come. We have all learned lessons around this process and we hope that no matter what the outcome of the BHP Billiton offer that we use the lessons learned to make Saskatchewan a better place to live, work and invest in the future.”

You can be damn sure that had it been the Saskatchewan NDP that was fighting against BHP, the chamber, along with every other business and industry lobby group in the province, would be marching on the Legislative Building with pitchforks and torches — with the StarPhoenix’s and Leader-Post’s blessing.


UPDATE: On October 26, 2010, an email was sent to all Saskatchewan Conservative MP’s asking one simple question: ‘Do you support or oppose BHP Billiton’s takeover proposal.’

At the time of Industry Minister Tony Clement’s announcement on November 3, 2010, no MP had answered the question.

Two responses have so far been received after the deadline.

The first was from Blackstrap MP Lynne Yelich on November 4, 2010: “Yesterday, the Honourable Tony Clement, Minister of Industry announced that he contacted BHP Billiton and informed them that he was not satisfied that their application for the proposed acquisition of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan would be of net benefit to Canada.

“Under the law, BHP Billiton now has thirty days to make further representations to the government. At the end of those thirty days, Minister Clement will make a final decision. Under the Canada Investment Act, the government cannot comment any further on the details of the Minister’s decision until those thirty days have passed.

“As Member of Parliament for Blackstrap, I received many comments from constituents on this matter. I, along with my Saskatchewan colleagues passed the knowledge and concerns of our constituents to Minister Clement.

Saskatchewan’s natural resources are important economic drivers and we must be careful stewards of these assets. Any deals offered to purchase these resources must be of net benefit to Saskatchewan, and Canada as a whole.

“I appreciate your patience in this matter, as we await the final decision of the Minister.”

The fact remains that Yelich, like many of her colleagues, was silent throughout the entire process.

The second reply was a follow-up message from Saskatoon–Rosetown–Biggar MP Kelly Block on November 5, 2010: “Thank you for your e-mail regarding the proposed takeover of Potash Corp. by BHP Billiton.

“Along with my colleagues from Saskatchewan, I have been listening to your concerns and raising them with the Honourable Tony Clement, the Minister of Industry, to help inform his decision. The Minister sent notice to BHP Billiton indicating that, at this time, he is not satisfied that the proposed transaction is likely to be of net benefit to Canada. According to the Investment Canada Act, BHP Billiton has 30 days, from the date of the decision, to make any additional representations and submit any undertakings. During that time, we are not legally allowed to publicly divulge any of the details surrounding the decision or offer.

“I support the Minister of Industry in his decision and was glad for the opportunity to meet with him on several occasions to share the concerns of my constituents in Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar.

“Thank you for expressing your opinions on the matter.

“Working to represent Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar is truly an honour. If I can be of any further assistance please do not hesitate in contacting my office.”

Had Block the backbone to speak up before the deadline when it mattered the most her comments would have carried weight and credibility. Supporting the minister after the fact is expected. It’s common knowledge that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is obsessed with control and rules with an iron fist. There’s likely not one Saskatchewan Conservative MP that has the guts to say they disagree with him or the minster.

It should be noted that of all the responses received from MP’s to date, not one has said they were forbidden from commenting on the subject because of legal reasons.

Lastly, details of BHP Billiton’s lobbying efforts in Ottawa to secure federal backing for its takeover bid of PotashCorp are beginning to trickle in.

According to a communications report submitted by BHP CEO Marius Kloppers with Canada’s office of lobbying on November 4, 2010, the Australian-based mining giant met with the Saskatchewan’s 14 MP’s on September 22, 2010. In separate reports filed with the registry, the company also communicated with numerous government officials including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and House Speaker Peter Milliken.

Unfortunately, BHP brass and Saskatchewan Conservative MP’s (and the Wall government for that matter) failed to make time to meet directly with the owners of the province’s potash, the people of Saskatchewan.


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