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Harper can’t ignore opposition to Nexen sale by his political base

The proposed sale of Nexen Inc. to CNOOC, the Chinese state-owned oil company, has been condemned by leftist groups such as the Council of Canadians. Stephen Harper will ignore them. But it is also drawing fire from another quarter that Mr. Harper has to take very seriously: his own political base.

The Sun newspapers, including the Edmonton and Calgary papers,  oppose the sale on the grounds that China would never permit a similar Canadian investment into its economy.

Why would CNOOC have offered such a generous price-per-share "if not for thinking that Canada can be easily bought because it is either politically weak or politically stupid?" the editorial argued. "Communism, after all, has never been philanthropic."

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Normally pro-business columnists such as Diane Francis ("The new Game of Thrones is not about military conquest but about picking off trophy assets from countries, like Canada, that are Boy Scouts and naïve enough to let them do so.") and John Robson ("Would you let Nazis buy Canadian oil fields? Or Stalinists? Well then, how about Mao's bloodthirsty heirs?") are violently opposed to the sale.

And it's a safe bet that there are more than a few MPs in Mr. Harper's own caucus who feel exactly the same way.

Conservative opposition to the CNOOC/Nexen deal is rooted in a fervent anti-communism that was dominant within the old Reform Party, and that Mr. Harper himself once subscribed to.

For Reform hardliners, the Cold War may have ended, but the scourge of godless communism still stalked the globe, with China the biggest and most dangerous threat by far.

For some of these true believers, nothing has changed with time. Even something as innocuous as a new visitors centre for the Norman Bethune museum evoked the ire of pundits such as Ezra Levant, who detest the Canadian humanitarian because he gave aid to the Chinese communists.

China-bashing became government policy when the Conservatives were first elected. The Harper government promoted Taiwan and the Dalai Lama, while distancing itself from Beijing. This had consequences; trade between the two countries languished.

But Mr. Harper has experienced something of a Damascene conversion on China. The recession brought home the power of its no-longer-emerging economy. The Prime Minister has travelled to China twice – putting up with a bit of public humiliation from the Chinese the first time, by way of revenge. The Conservative government now considers trade diversification its most important economic priority, with China at the top of the list of countries Canada should do more business with.

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But the fight from the right over the Nexen sale is a potent reminder that, while Mr. Harper has long since evolved from his fiercely anti-communist past, a significant portion of his conservative base still hasn't.

They will push him to veto the sale, and if he lets it go ahead they will be angry. He will need to do something to placate them.

It's impossible to know what that might be, but whatever it is, making up for the Nexen sale will be the reason.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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