Grit demands have impact on decisions

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Sun Media, Friday, November 19, 2010

Stephen Harper has deftly triangulated the Liberals in the last two weeks by doing precisely what the Opposition asked on two big issues--potash and Afghanistan.

That both decisions happened to be the right thing to do, good policy as well as good politics, is a collateral benefit.

The Harper government's decision to kill the hostile foreign takeover of Potash Corp. was a complete no-brainer. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall's adamant opposition to BHP Billiton's $38-billion takeover bid pretty much sealed it.

BHP, focused on getting approval from Investment Canada in Ottawa, took its eye off the ball in Regina. With Saskatchewan having half the world's supply of potash, and up to 30% of global output from Potash Corp. alone, Wall was never going to support a deal that might negatively affect provincial royalties. By the time he finished a round of speeches denouncing the deal, nine Saskatchewanians out of 10 opposed it. So did 11 Tory backbenchers from the province who spoke out against the deal in the Conservative national caucus two weeks ago on the day that Industry Minister Tony Clement announced Ottawa would not approve the deal. They were all terrified of losing their seats.

Saskatchewan is a superpower in potash. Consider that it has reserves of over 100 billion tonnes, a supply of more than 4,000 years at current production levels, with a market value of nearly $35 billion US--equivalent to the world's annual GDP. There's no doubt it's a strategic resource, not just a commodity.

The Liberals had demanded Harper refuse approval for the deal, and after first saying he didn't see any problem with having a company already majority-owned by foreigners being sold to other foreigners, he flip-flopped on it, leaving the Grits without anything to say.

Similarly, on Afghanistan, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and his foreign affairs critic Bob Rae have for months been calling for Canada to re-profile its mission from combat operations to training Afghan soldiers and police.

Sure enough, the government confirmed this week that the Canadian contingent of 2,500 troops would rotate out of Kandahar as scheduled beginning next July, but that a smaller force of 950 Canadians would lead a training mission based "behind the wire" in Kabul until 2014.

This just happens to coincide with the U.S. timeline for NATO's final handover to the Afghans to be presented at this weekend's NATO summit by the American commander, Gen. David Petraeus. It's not because Iggy asked Harper to change his mind about leaving Afgthanistan altogether, it's because the U.S. and our NATO allies did. As a founding member of NATO, and America's best friend, it was inconceivable that Canada would step away after asking others to step up, as we did with the Manley report in 2008. It was equally unthinkable that Harper would go to Lisbon empty-handed.

The backstory is weeks of delicate talks between Rae and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, and an outcome that saw Harper forgo a debate and vote on a resolution in the House, which would expose deep divisions among Liberals who weren't consulted by their leadership.

It's unusual for Harper, with his tactical instincts, to pass up a chance to embarrass the Liberals and give Iggy a free pass. But Harper also understands that Ignatieff has been on the right side of the Afghan issue in two previous resolutions, and after the 2006 vote crossed the floor to shake his hand.

It's an unusual grace note, but it's also the right thing do. There is honour in politics.

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